Sunday, September 30, 2007

Maybe A Stippled Studfish Project Next Year?

I've had the idea in the back of my mind of doing a distribution project with the stippled studfish, Fundulus bifax. This species is found in a dwindling range in the Tallapoosa and Coosa River basins in east-central Alabama, in places like Cornhouse Creek in Randolph County. It may already have disappeared from the Georgia part of its range. Two similar species, the northern studfish (F. catenatus) and southern studfish (F. stellifer), are currently safe and have much larger ranges. Interestingly, based on DNA evidence, the stippled studfish is more closely related to the northern studfish than to the southern studfish whose distribution range surrounds that of the stippled.

I have museum collection records for about 50 stippled studfish sites from the University of Alabama Ichthyology Collection in Tuscaloosa, so I have the basis for a field survey. This project could also include some DNA work in the lab to determine genetic structure and diversity using some protocols I got this summer from a friend. And I might be able to get a small grant to support the project(!). So it could be fun. I've wanted to get back to some Fundulus species work, going back to the roots for me in some ways with killifish. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tomorrow I give my first exam in the Vertebrate Reproduction class. With any luck I can have it graded in a week, 32 students each answering 5 short essay questions. A theme of the test will be, "What do steroid hormones mean to me?". Anabolic, baby.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

We Almost Have 4 New Mummichog DNA Sequences From Martha's Vineyard

Kris has been poking along and is almost ready to run sequences of cyt-b mtDNA from 4 mummichogs, Fundulus heteroclitus, that I collected on the Vineyard 10 years ago almost to the day today. We're grateful to Leland in the Podila lab for advising Kris on the best ways to purify and concentrate the DNA for a clean sequencing. This involved buying some new L primer that we use from local biotech company Operon. With our university discount, it was only $6.44 which should hold us a while. Thanks to Operon for suffering my initial confusions in placing the order. With these sequences we should have a reasonable data set of mummichog sequences from Cape Cod to Charleston, SC.

I'm postponing my flame chub trip to Anniston, AL, to Saturday, October 6. Andrew wants to go, but he was given a free three-day ticket worth $60 to attend Big Spring Jam (local music festival) next weekend. So we'll wait. I keep hearing that Big Spring Jam will always invite 3 big-name redneck bands like Skynyrd or Hank Williams, Jr. since they try to be all things to all people (Please, no! No more "Free Bird"! I wanna get away from negative sterotypes.). I'm not sure which bands fit that bill this year. But Dr. John and the North Mississippi All Stars are playing on Sunday, so I might spring money to go see them.

And now, back to grading exams from my freshman classes. As always the grades are all over the place, from the 20s to 103 out of 100. The reality of university education begins to set in for many.......

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Visit To Marshall County, AL, Yesterday

I visited a large private property along the southern bank of the Tennessee River in Marshall County, AL, to develop a quote for doing a mussel survey in a creek on the property. The owner wants to develop a marina on the creek just above where it runs into the Tennessee, as part of an upscale housing development (not too, too bad from what I can tell). The property is currently used for hunting, with a house available for rental. The creek is too muddy to hold many mussels, both in number of species and total count, in my opinion. But I got to drive around some of the property with a contact and see some interesting sights. There's a red oak on the property that has a measured circumference of 22 feet at chest height, nearly a state record I'm told.

The first picture is looking across the Tennessee, to a rock formation known as Paint Rock. The Paint Rock River is named after this formation; the river runs into the Tennessee to the east (right) of this broken-off mountain. For this view you either have to be on the Tennessee, or straight across the river from it.

The property contains a number of diked "ponds" that are seasonally flooded for duck hunting. A number of natural spring seeps run through them, including the messy-looking one below. If I can visit this property again I'd like to run a pushnet through some of these seeps and see what fishes, if any, are there (including flame chubs as a prime suspect). There is apparently at least one sink hole that drains some of these seeps. Yesterday it had a wad of mud blocking the hole.

One problem this property seems to have is a healthy population of beavers. They're fine with me, but beavers are very insistent on building dams and lodges where they want. There is lots of evidence of beavers in these ponds, such as the gnawed tree below which is still alive but losing lots of sap.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Omigod, I Have To Move My Fish Collection Soon!

Our department is moving to the new science building on campus soon. This is of course a major logistical nightmare for everyone involved. For me, besides figuring out how to move our 50 teaching microscopes without smashing them up (short answer: box them and transport them myself) I have to move my ~450 jars of preserved fish, variously in ethanol and 10% phosphate buffered formaldehyde, and several buckets of preserved mussels from the Tennessee River. I moved about 150 jars of pickled fish from Boston 8 years ago without a problem so this shouldn't be that bad. But I'm stressing already... I hope to move them sometime in November. And then there's all of my books (I feel like a biblioklept sometimes), plus all of the fossils in the Vertebrate Zoology lab, and several large aquaria. Good thing that I have a truck with a functional tailgate.

On a less stressed note, we've made some progress figuring out how to count and characterize telescope shiner eggs in the .jpg images we've created after shredding ovaries. The big question is how to separate eggs that are Late Mature from those that are Mature, developmentally. There's not always a large size difference. One characteristic we've noticed is that many of these developing eggs are reddish-brown, with marbled layers of yellow. The reddish-brown represents oil droplets and concentrated protein deposition, along with the yellow yolk, all of which are more pronounced as the egg is nearly ready to be released and fertilized. This is something different from what I've encountered with other shiner eggs, or seen mentioned in journal articles. So at least two of the students working with me are clear on this point, and I think one of the other two is also. I wanted to do this project right rather than fast, but we're picking up the speed now.

And I still have to do two field trips to look for flame chubs in 'bama, one trip to Anniston, AL, and one to Russellville in Franklin County. I hope to do one of these trips in two weeks, at least.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

We Saw A Bunch Of Stuff At The Walls Of Jericho Yesterday

Yesterday we made our last regularly scheduled collection of telescope shiners at the Walls of Jericho. It was a warm, sunny day. The late summer flowers were out in force: iron weed, cardinal flowers, Joe Pye weed, all of the unknowable asters (to me at least). And the iron weed and Joe Pye weed were drawing more butterflies than I've seen for a while. Walking into a dense patch of iron weed or Joe Pye weed would flush a cloud of butterflies, including Monarchs (see below). We heard a pileated woodpecker calling, and heard the deep drumming sound they make when working on a tree. And we saw a trio of redtail hawks apparently cooperatively hunting: one of them would come down low and fast over the iron weed at the treeline, trying to flush prey, while the other two circled overhead and seemed to wait for something good to run. And, of course, we saw several large flocks of turkeys largely comprised of juveniles. So everything was pumped up along Hurricane Creek. I realized that much of this was possible because much of the pasture that had been kept mowed for cow grazing until recently is now being allowed to grow in, which means lots of iron weed and Joe Pye weed especially. The land is allowed to go its own way, and the short term result is a bumper crop of butterflies. I approve!

Our fish trip was successful, we captured 38 telescopes with little trouble. I'm sure that they're past breeding, but I'm curious to see what their length/weight relationship works out as.

Below is a caterpillar that fell in the back of the truck and somehow stung Loren a few times. I have no idea what it is. Do you?

The following shot is a view of the central meadow at the Walls property, with the ridge in the backgroud marking the northern lip of the canyon leading to the springs at the Walls of Jericho proper. The darker purple flowers are iron weed, the lighter pink is Joe Pye weed.

The following is my prize shot for the day, a handheld zoom shot of a monarch on a Joe Pye flower spike. I assume the monarchs are on their way south, or will be soon.

And, here's what the creek looked like yesterday. This site is the pool upstream from an old ford. We usually don't catch many telescope shiners in this pool but yesterday it was easy with our 12-foot seine. This spot was a good foot (30 cm) deeper in February and March.

Friday, September 07, 2007

More Flame Chub Collections

Through a series of online exchanges this past week I was given a copy of the TVA's collection records of flame chubs in Alabama. The TVA has an active group of biologists on staff who do good work. As part of their IBI (Index of Biotic Integrity) survey work they've encountered flame chubs in north 'bama going back to the 1990s. Their list has 42 records, of 37 (I think) unique sites. Some of their sites are ones I've already visited. Two of their sites I have to check out soon are two creeks just south of Russellville, AL, in Franklin County. This is to the west of anyplace I've already sampled. They also have some interesting data for Morgan and Jackson counties, to the south and east, respectively, of Huntsville. I also still have to go to Anniston, AL, to check if a disjunct population of flame chubs still exists there in a creek. Between them this mean two whole-day trips to sample creeks.

Tomorrow we go to Hurricane Creek for our last regularly-scheduled telescope shiner collection. That will complete the season with monthly collections from February to September.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

More ELISA Data, And Counting & Measuring Oocytes

Jennifer's ELISA run earlier this week worked well. It seems that we have accurate 11-KT values for 6 scarlet shiner alpha males, 6 sub-alpha males, and 5 females. This most recent ELISA run was based on blood plasma dilutions of 1:1000 and 1:10000 because some males have such high levels of 11-KT. Now we have to figure out the best way to quantify intensity and saturation of red pigment colors in these fish. We have several leads, hopefully one works out soon.

I've also been working with four students on standardizing our counting and characterization of telescope shiner oocytes. Everyone is supposed to look at the same three fish from May. The first run yielded good size data, but some confusion of what characterizes early maturing vs. late maturing vs. mature oocytes. So we've all re-done our counts, and from looking at peoples' notebooks yesterday I think we're on the same wavelength. I think I might set up a system where two people will look at each fish, and we'll average their counts if they seem similar. Trying to accurately count even 60 eggs in a digital image is harder than it looks.

Next Saturday is our last scheduled trip to the Walls of Jericho to collect telescope shiners. I'm sure that their gonads are regressed, but I'm curious to collect length/weight data and maybe find some undeniable young of the year. A university photographer might go with us, we'll see, I know that everyones' schedules are in flux.

Hey Enrique, if you read this, come by the Bishop lab at 10 on Tuesday.