Researching polychaete worms in the Falkland Islands
In November 2011 I visited the Falkland Islands to start a project looking at the distribution and identification of the marine bristleworms (polychaetes). The visit was part funded by the Shackleton Scholarship Fund and, following a highly successful visit, a second grant was awarded in April 2012 to fund a second trip in January 2013. The additional fieldwork will concentrate on the island of West Falkland which was not sampled at all on the last trip as well as visiting a few extra sites on East Falkland to gain more comprehensive coverage of that island too. The combination of the two trips together will provide data from all around the coasts of both islands as well as Falkland Sound in between them and will be the most detailed survey of the polychaetes of the intertidal and inshore regions for that area to date.
Check back regularly to see what I've been up to.
Sea Lions, Penguins and Algae
Bleaker Island has proven to be very interesting and we’ve certainly had the weather to appreciate it, summer has suddenly landed. It’s sunny enough for sun cream but not quite warm enough to tempt us into short sleeves, still that’s a definite improvement!
Bleaker Island is 10-12 miles in length. We’ve been able to use a car whilst here, so have been able to cover most of the island to check out the coastline. We didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon but were just in time yesterday to catch enough of the tide to still be able to do sampling in the mid-shore of the bay just below the settlement (photo 1). This was a soft muddy coarse sand, fairly black in appearance but with several tubes apparent that could contain worms as well as a few other free-living specimens to collect. There were also a few rocks to turn over and inspect. However, the tide was chasing us back up the beach so we did not stay long. Further round from here, the shore was covered in both large and small flat rocks under which we found a few more species to add to the collection.
Once the tide had risen too far to make further collecting worthwhile, we went on our first reccy along the shoreline to see what it looked like. There seemed to be very little in the way of sand except for a very large white sandy bay covered in penguins (photo 2). Sadly, I know from previous experience that worms and penguins don’t mix, with the type of sand favoured by penguins being practically empty of worms. This used up the rest of the usable day but the next day we headed south along the rest of the island. The southern coastline is all exposed cliffs, with large areas of flat rock ledges made up of solid, scoured-clean rock that did not look promising. The northern coastline, more sheltered, had large swathes of different rock ledges that were covered in a filamentous algae that in turn covered large deposits of a pink calcareous, loose alga (photo 3). This was a type of habitat I had not seen around the islands before and was quite excited to find (okay, that may sound strange but we all find different things exciting!). There did not actually seem to be much diversity within the loose crisp algae but at the same time it was a new habitat in a new location and that kind of data is always important to have whether it is rich or poor in animals. After sampling here we still had time to get back to the settlement just at the low tide point. We went back down to the small bay sampled yesterday and added a sample point from low tide to the mid-tide point already surveyed. There was a small distraction in the shape of a mother sea lion and her pup (photo 4), very small being only a couple of weeks old. Distraction over, the sampling was done. Just to finish off the afternoon we drove slightly further up the coast to add another site to the list that also had some of the calcareous algae over rock ledges (photo 5). These were high enough on shore allowing us to sample until 2-3 hours after the tide had turned.
Tomorrow is back to Stanley and we hope summer will come back with us.
Well, Foul Bay did live up to its name on what actually turned out to be the best weather we’ve had so far. All of my sampling sites are generally chosen for having easy access off the road, but I had taken a risk this time and picked a site where the road ended before the coast, leaving what I thought would be a reasonably distanced walk. However, as the road finished close to a settlement we stopped in for a quick chat and some advice about access to the shore. The advice was that our chosen route would be unsuitable but there was another track that would get us close a little way back down the road, it was a ‘little soft’ but our 4x4 ‘should’ be fine!
We found the track and made it to the first wire gate (a particular type of access gate here that involves removing part of the fence and then driving through and replacing it). Underneath the wire gate was a very soft, deep-looking area of water (see photo), which with the peaty ground here normally signifies something to be avoided! Looking onwards, the supposedly clear track almost instantly disappeared (to our inexperienced eyes) and therefore we debated the wisdom of continuing. The alternative was to walk to the shore, which appeared to be around 2-3 miles away! As we were on our own and the people from the settlement had driven away, we knew there was no help should problems arise (i.e. getting irretrievably ‘bogged’). We eventually made the difficult decision that this one would have to be cancelled. This left us with a rather disconsolate two hour drive back empty-handed, one to put down to experience unfortunately. A foul day indeed!
Tomorrow we are flying to Bleaker Island, to the southeast of the islands, which fills in a large gap in my coverage around the islands. Fingers crossed that we can find a variety of shores here to cover and improve our record!
Digging for worms in the Falkland Islands
First of all, here is the photo of the reproductive stage of a worm (photo 1), which I found during night sampling two days ago, but forgot to send! Very nice to collect, just unfortunately not what I was after.
Mare Harbour was an interesting visit, having never been down to a shore almost completely surrounded by barbed wire before (photo 2)! This shore is within the military area here so I was lucky to get access at all, although the officer on duty seemed totally bemused as to why I would even want to. It turned out to be a very hard and rocky area with some areas of flat rocks over gravelly sand and other areas of vertically ridged rock. The flat rock areas had a reasonable diversity of species although collecting was hard work as there were only small numbers of animals to find. Still I did come away with some animals I definitely haven’t seen before including the ‘pretty’ catch of the day, which was a syllid (see photo 3) with its wonderfully intricate hair-do. There were also many flabelligerids (as difficult to say as spell: photo 4). This particular strange species covers itself with mucus, which silt adheres to. This gives it the appearance of jelly when you find it.
Brendan also managed to get out on a dive today which he was very pleased about although his description of it being ‘just like West Wales’ led me to believe it wasn’t the best that the Falkland Islands can offer. However, he brought me back a present of 4 bags of mud. Not the most romantic present I’ve ever been offered certainly, but still there were some nice worms in there including a bamboo worm (maldanid: photo 5). These worms are often very hard to collect whole making identification almost impossible, however, this one was completely intact.
Today saw us driving up to the north east of the island to the region of Rincon Grande. As usual I had no idea what to expect, but with the wind howling again I merely hoped the rain would hold off, so that the couple of hours on an exposed beach would not be too gruelling. I got my wish for most of the duration, to ask for more would just be greedy I suppose!
The shore was mostly rocky again but with one small inlet of softer muddy sand. I set Brendan to work with the fork (photo 6) and studiously watched what came up – lots of tubes and other worms dangling down! We spent some happy time here slowly teasing the long worms out of their sand beds and shoving other tubes into pots before moving on.
Further round the bay in the rockier sections we moved on to rock turning, gaining a small diversity of worms which again were small in number and difficult to find. Working independently with forceps and pot in hand (photo 7), Brendan managed a larger haul than me, which he was very proud of although apparently we were not competing!
On our last stop we returned to our starting point in the softer sediment but at the low tide mark this time to see if the type of worms had changed. There were certainly a couple of different types and we also found an unusual type of crustacean, a serolid isopod, which is flattened and ‘trilobite-like’ and often found in pairs (photo 8). These certainly were an intriguing distraction. Shortly afterwards the tide turned and we were out of time, which meant we had to head back.
Off to the northwest tomorrow to Foul Bay – hopefully not as bad as the name sounds!
Falkland Islands Marine Bristleworms
The Polychaetes of the Falkland Islands project has been running since 2011 with two highly successful field trips run so far. The project has been well supported with two Shackleton Scholarship Fund grants and support form the local environmental groups and institutes. So far, over 30 families of polychaetes have been identified from the samples and 2 new species have been described, with more on the way. The third field trip hopes to build on the success of the previous two, expanding the range of sampling sites and seeking new opportunities for collaborative project funding in the islands.
After the usual gruelling 18 hour flight, I’m back out in the Falkland Islands again to continue expanding my range of sampling sites, maintain my contact with those out here and also investigate further project funding opportunities. This time my husband has travelled out with me to see what all the fuss is about and also to try and understand what it is I actually do (you can see his eyes glaze over when I try and explain things so maybe seeing first-hand will actually help!). He’s going to come out with me in the field, help me collect and generally be an extra person in those remote areas I end up in. I’m not sure he knows what he’s let himself in for but at least he may stop referring to my fieldwork as ‘rock pooling for adults’!
The weather hasn’t been kind to us initially, being very wet and windy, even beyond normal Falkland Islands standards! It is supposed to be summer here but it was only 5°C when we landed, cooler than the UK when we left, and the horizontal hail driven into us at hyper speed by the winds was no fun at all!
This was my first full day here and after finalizing all of the arrangements for the next two weeks, our first sampling was a short but harsh introduction to the kind of work I sometimes find myself doing. This was night sampling, attempting to collect the reproductive forms of certain polychaetes that come out at night, swimming free in the water to spawn and are attracted to bright lights. For this reason we found ourselves in a Stanley marina, on a pontoon at 11pm, in the rain, dangling an underwater torch into the water and sweeping a fine mesh net around it, collecting the many different small creatures that were attracted to it (see photo). It was too late to have a detailed look at our catch, so they went into the fridge to keep cool overnight until I could get to the lab for a look and I went to bed.
The order of the day today was to have a look at what I had managed to catch in the marina last night. Most of what I had were small Crustacea and the smallest jellyfish I’ve ever seen (about 2mm wide) but there were 4 worms of the right kind of appearance, albeit a bit smaller than I would have expected (about 10 mm long). I’ve been allowed access to the Fisheries lab while I’m here and their camera microscope so I was able to take some photos of the little critters. Interesting as they were, unfortunately they were not what I was after, which was a bit disappointing. They were certainly reproductive stages of polychaetes but of a different group to the one I am after, although I haven’t determined which group yet. Still, better than nothing!
The weather has been better, being mostly dry, a bit warmer and marginally less windy. Fingers crossed for tomorrow’s weather, which is the first shore visit. It is an early start though, with a 6.30 am wake-up call, to get to Mare Harbour, about an hour and a half drive away. Hopefully something interesting will turn up!
A species new to science!
The first results and new species have now been published from the project on the Polychaetes of the Falkland Islands. The project, which started in 2011, intends to document the polychaetes (marine bristleworms) of the intertidal region around the islands, information that will help inform marine environmental work and improve future identification of the group in the area. Further details of the project can be found in a Rhagor article here and earlier blogs here that documented the fieldwork.
The new species, Micromaldane shackletoni, was named in recognition of the Shackleton Scholarship Fund who support the work. The species is of particular interest as it is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, which means that it produces eggs and sperm at the same time that fertilise internally. The larvae are then brooded inside the animal's tube until they are large enough to leave and build their own tube. This method of reproduction has only been reported once amongst other species in the same genus. To document the stages of reproduction involved using a scanning electron microscope to look in detail at the eggs and sperm (see photo) from inside the body, the developing larvae and other structures on the adult bodies (see photo of head). Animals are only 0.3mm wide and around 11m long. The species description and details have been published in the scientific journal Zootaxa.
Falkland Islands 2013: February 4th update
I ended up sampling two different shores at Hill Cove, one below the main settlement and the other at the far east end of Byron Sound by the West Lagoons area (Photo 1). Each was slightly different although fairly low in diversity with clean fine sand. In between those I also went to Shallow Bay (Photo 2) which was further east and north and very rocky. Here I found some interesting worms that I don’t think I had seen elsewhere under the rocks and in crevices. As the tides have been getting later the morning tides have been gradually creeping towards more viable times themselves. The second shore in Hill Cove was actually visited very early in the morning although I must admit my dedication to getting up before breakfast nearly waned when I heard rain lashing against the window. Luckily that passed and I did make it out.
Saturday morning dawned bright and still and the tide was slightly more sociable at 9am and, being a 5 minute walk down the hill, did not require too early a start. This was Port Howard where we were due to get the ferry back to the east in the afternoon, so a last easy site was a good way to finish. By mid-morning the wind had picked up and by lunchtime I had a feeling the ferry ride might be a little ‘lumpy’ but so long as we got back across the sound I didn’t care. Commerson’s Dolphins saw us off, playing in the waves alongside the ferry, a nice farewell (Photo 3). The trip was indeed lumpy but less than 2 hours later we were back in New Haven and after another 2 hours were in a very wet and blowy Stanley. Photo 4 shows the locations of the sampling sites.
The tour around West Falkland has been very successful with a range of different sites visited from all a around the coastline and I have collected some very good samples. Highlights that stand out were the large lugworms at Port Stephens (Photo 5) and the densely packed onuphidae colonies that occur in patches on many of the sandy shores (Photo 6). I have also seen many animals that I am sure I did not collect on the previous trip so that bodes well for the final species list.
Back at the office I set to finishing packing the precious samples. I had been regularly keeping up with changing the fluids in the pots while I was travelling and even sealing them up and putting them into small bags ready so as to make the packing process quicker. In no time at all I had 6 boxes packed and taped up. This was more than I had been expecting to have considering I have already sent 3 boxes back and I didn’t think the lady in the post office would be very happy to see me! Certainly I don’t think I gave her a good start to a Monday morning.
With my flight early tomorrow morning I only have today left here to wrap everything up. I’ve visited 23 different sites around both East and West Falkland over the last four weeks and after this second trip my map of sites looks much more comprehensive with points all around the coastline. Hopefully the eventual species list, together with a voucher collection that will be returned to the islands, that will come out of the project will enable future researchers out here to make better and more accurate identifications of this important group.
I have a radio interview this afternoon with the local station to talk about the research I am doing so that will be a good opportunity to explain to more people the purpose behind the visit.
So it just remains for me thank all of the islanders out here for their help, support and cups of tea during the trip (particularly those that helped and supported my car and supplied brake fluid).
The project also could not have continued without the support and assistance of the Shackleton Scholarship Fund and the Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Thank you all!
Falkland Islands 2013: January 31st update
It turns out that the car is not due to recover quickly and has been declared ‘unserviceable’ (a word that brought twinges of déjà vu and memories of my flight out). A replacement has been promised.
Still, I have a car on loan for now which got me to Crooked Inlet, a large winding creek on the southern side of the same peninsula I sampled yesterday. As with many such sheltered creeks the sediment was soft muddy sand and there were many promising holes and tubes poking out from even high up the shore. The creek is very flat and so the tide retreated quickly, so quickly that at one point I actually watched it move away from me. As the ground was so flat I spaced my sampling out with quite long distances between the locations, each time moving down to where the edge of the tide was at that moment. However the fauna at each location did not seem to change appreciably although I did notice that as I moved down, the animals increased in size, with the juveniles obviously staying higher up the shore and the adults being lower down. The soft muddy sand was home to some very large specimens of several different groups including orbiniids, maldanids, terebellids and lumbrinerids. The most interesting find of the day though was a species of nereid (ragworms) that I had not yet seen during this trip and had only found previously at three sites on East Falkland in 2011. This species is in fact a new, currently undescribed species that I was working on from the previous material before coming out here so it was great to find another site for it.
The speed at which the tide had retreated had led me to decide that it would be prudent to return up the shore 20-30 minutes before low tide was due in case it moved back in at the same speed. This marvellous plan however was scuppered by the tide deciding to turn half an hour early just as I had decided to try and sieve some sediment from the last site. As the site disappeared under water I retreated to my previous site with the oystercatchers jeering behind me and stubbornly sieved some there instead, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the line of water creeping its way towards me. Sieving done I retreated fully, albeit slowly, up the inlet back to the car.
At this moment I am watching the rain fall, hoping it stops by this afternoon otherwise it will be a wet trip to the beach later. I’m staying local today and sampling the main, large bay in Hill Cove. I saw it last night on my way back in from Crooked Inlet and it looked interesting with different rocky and sandy sections to it so I’m looking forward to investigating the life down there tonight.
Falkland Islands 2013: January 30th update
Communication with the outside world has been sadly lacking for the last few days as I drive around West Falkland. Mobile coverage only extends to Port Howard and Fox Bay which is where I was able to send a text update from. Since then, mobile and internet access haven’t existed. I am now in Hill Cove, on the north coast of West Falkland where my hosts have been generous enough to allow me access to their broadband.
Getting here has been a long journey in more ways than one. From Fox Bay, I travelled to Port Stephens on the far southwest tip of the island and visited the charmingly named Moonlight Bay. A flat sandy bay with a rich array of animals in both sand and rocky outcrops I then encountered the largest lugworm I have ever seen, measuring 30cm in length!
Only slightly further north but with an opposing aspect, I went to South Harbour. Mostly rocky but with a small soft sandy section enclosed by the rocks I found some interesting crevices to explore as well as a bright orange sponge growing on the surface of many of the shaded overhangs which had fanworms embedded in it.
A long drive back north, past Fox Bay, brought me to Little Chartres Farm, the only place I have stayed in that was not part of my sampling list. The farm is located at the top of the Chartres River which then heads west widening into a large estuary which was my sampling target. A short drive took me to Chartres settlement where I could walk down on to a large open shore with large areas of flat rocky ridges as well as a lot of very soft muddy sand, soft enough to sink into slightly but not disappear! Again, the variety of habitats on the shore provided me with lots of sampling opportunity. The soft sediment harboured some large mobile animals as well as many tubes with worms inside. There were so many animals to try and lok at that I sieved a few spadefuls of the sediment and kept everything retained so I could be sure of making as good an account of what was living there as possible. After leaving the shore at Chartres I then also stopped off on my way back to Little Chartres to have a look at the shore further up the river. There were some worms here but as far as I could tell only of a genus called Boccardia. These worms I have commonly found in most high shore regions and areas closer to freshwater input where the salt content is much more variable than further down a creek or estuary. I did of course collect a few for comparison anyway just to be sure they really were the same!
Northward travel resumed and I headed towards the northeastern tip of the island at Dunbar. The owners directed me further along the road to Hot Stone Cove Creek, a long, narrow bay which, as the tide receded, completely emptied out to leave an expanse of sand leading out to an exposed rocky point. The sand harboured an enormous population of lugworms (but not a population of enormous lugworms this time) but there was also a large diversity of other polychaetes squeezed in amongst them. The rocky headland was also interesting as on the exposed side the rocks were thickly covered in a pink encrusting alga which formed fairly loose crusts. Such crusts can provide a great habitat for animals such as worms so some sections of that went into a pot for investigation. After finishing on the shore my destination was the settlement at Hill Cove where I am staying now for a few days.
It was at this point however that circumstances went downhill rather disturbingly. Without going into long detail, the car I was driving started having a very bad day. This is not what you want when you are on a road that probably sees an average of less than one car a day and the nearest house is several miles away. In a stressful drive involving leaking brake fluid and an overheating engine I limped into Hill Cove which I knew would be the best place to be for help as I would have access to phones, internet and importantly an airstrip for help and, if necessary, car parts to get to me. Magically, the person who hired me the car turned out to have a partner here in the settlement who has taken the car away fixed one problem and is getting a part flown in to fix the other and promised me a spare car to use this afternoon so I can keep my sampling on track as I head west and slightly south to Crooked Inlet. Tomorrow my plan was to stay by the settlement to sample here so a car is not essential and hopefully by then the car will be well again!
Falkland Islands 2013: January 26th update
Thursday: New Haven
Windy,cold, rocky gravelly shore. Watcghed by penguins, attacked by a tern!
Friday: Fox Bay West
Galeforce winds, driving rain, numb hands! Sandy shore, lots of lugworms, very long Orbiniids (20cm) but not much else. Onshore wind holding tide in.
(Text update rather than email)
Falkland Islands 2013: January 25th update
No sampling today and very glad I was too as a torrential hailstorm (photo 1) battered the office windows! A third parcel is now with the post office and will hopefully be winging its way up the Atlantic by the end of the week. The rest of today has been spent preparing for my trip to West Falkland tomorrow. I will be over there for 10 days touring my way around the island to try and get as good coverage of the shoreline as I can. As my choice of shores is largely dictated by the existence of roads by which to reach them and places I can stay my choice of sites was fairly restricted but I think I have a fairly good itinerary.
The ferry goes from New Haven to Port Howard in the evening which gives me time to catch the tide in New Haven just after lunch (why miss an opportunity?!). I’ll then be travelling south down the east coast to Fox Bay, further south and west to Port Stephens before turning north to South Harbour. From there I keep heading north this time up the west coast, stopping in at Chartres and Roy Cove before reaching Dunbar in the northwest. From Dunbar I will move along the north coast to Hill Cove, West Lagoons and Shallow Bay before heading back to Port Howard and digging a few holes there for good measure. Then its back to Stanley, get the last parcels on their way home before packing myself off too. Photo 2 shows the locations of the various sites.
It will certainly be interesting to visit the shores on the west and see if there is any obvious difference in the fauna there, particularly as I get up to the northwestern areas. That part of the islands is affected by more northerly temperate currents rather than the colder southerly currents dominating the southeast so potentially there may be many different species there.
Internet access is unlikely for most of the tour although I am hoping to be able to send short updates for the blog whenever possible by text to report any notable events!