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.
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!
Falkland Islands 2013: January 23rd update
Yesterday (Monday) was probably the warmest day so far. Not necessarily the day you would pick for a dusty 3 hour drive across the island but that’s how it was. I was very thankful that the car had working air con as you can’t open the windows while driving unless you want the interior to be caked in half an inch of dust when you arrive. The timings of the tides meant that I would be able to catch both an evening tide and then a morning tide too, getting 2 sites done in the area. Unfortunately the tides at the moment are not the biggest so there is less beach exposed and available for sampling. Still at least I would get something - or so I hoped - North Arm turned out to be a very poor site for polychaetes indeed.
Monday night I picked a small creek just before the settlement (Photo 1). Rocky around the edges, the sheltered aspect meant that much of it was made up of very soft muddy sediment, the kind your boot sinks into and then stays. However, I found I could move around so long as I didn’t stay still too long but despite several attempts I was finding very little in the soft mud. Eventually I started finding some lugworms but by the end of nearly 2 hours I had found little else even though I had tried several places around the creek. It certainly made for a less arduous evening’s work than usual anyway.
The next morning, I tried the shoreline at the other end of the settlement. This proved to be very rocky with extensive mussel beds (Photo 2). The areas outside of the mussel beds had very coarse loose sand that again seemed to harbour very little in the way of obvious animals. However, I collected what I could find and then washed and sieved some of the sediment through a 0.5 mm mesh sieve. This is our standard way of getting a more complete view of the life in the sediment as the smaller worms will ‘float off’ in the swirled sediment and then be held on the fine mesh of the sieve as the water is poured through. The residue on the mesh is then washed into a pot and kept to be later sorted through under a microscope when any tiny animals can then be picked out. I did this for the general sandy sediment and also for some samples of the mussel beds which I washed off in a bucket and then poured through the sieve also. Hopefully there will be many more animals in there that I hadn’t been able to see without a microscope.
The long drive back then beckoned followed by more washing of previous samples and transferring them from formaldehyde to ethanol. Tomorrow I will be able to pack more pots and get at least one if not two more parcels of specimens on the way back to the UK. Photo 3 shows where North Arm is in the Falkland Islands.
Falkland Islands 2013: January 20th update
The weather today has been absolutely glorious. I realize that most people reading this will probably hate me for saying that, due to the current weather in the UK but it’s true. Managed to get out for a local dive this morning, a little further up the coast near York Point, east of Cape Pembroke. The dive site was a small rock rising a couple of metres above the surface (photo 1). It was only very shallow but there was an amazing amount of life on the colourful reef, including, most importantly of course, worm life. The main downside of sampling underwater out here is the prevalence not just of kelp, but of giant kelp (photo 2). This stuff gets everywhere, in your face, round your legs and just generally in the way!
One of the reasons we had gone there was so that I could see and sample some Phragmatopoma reef (as mentioned in the previous blog) and although not large we did find some (photo 3). There were also many fan worms (photo 4), another large worm known as the parchment worm (Chaetopterus sp.) for its thick papery tube and a colony of other smaller, thinner-tubed worms (photo 5) in the same family but a different genus to Chaetopterus.
Sadly, that one dive was the only one we did but I have enough work to keep me going into the evening now looking through them.
Tomorrow, I am heading south to North Arm, the southern-most settlement and furthest south the road goes on East Falkland. The tide times are such that I will be able to make both the evening and the next morning tides in order to get plenty done before heading back to Stanley on Tuesday.
Photo 6 is a map of the Falkland Islands showing where I've been.
Falkland Islands 2013: January 19th update
19.01.13: I’ve just come back from 2 days out on Saunders Island, one of the larger outer islands in the north west of the area. The island is host to a mountain of wildlife and I was hoping to see lots of this while at the same time being able to continue my sampling on such a distant point. Although I was staying in the settlement on the east coast of the island, the owners gave me a lift to one of the more northern parts of the island known as The Neck (photo 1). This is a narrow stretch of land with sandy bays to the north and south so the idea was to try and sample both sides and be able to compare them. The low tide was not until the evening at 7.30pm and the owners generously agreed to come back and fetch me at 8pm so I would be able to do my sampling (it’s a 10 mile hike back to the settlement from there). The late tide also meant that I had time to do some walking of my own and visit the different penguin colonies in the area: Magellanic, Gentoo (photo 2), King and Rockhopper, all charming as ever particularly the curious gentoos who will come right up to you if you sit down and wait patiently. I was also surprised, and not a little dismayed, to find a large population of caracaras (photo 3) in the area, not my favourite bird as many will know. Any time you stop moving or put anything down, however briefly, a caracara will almost immediately turn up and start investigating, poking things with a very sharp talon to see if its worth flying off with.
Once the tide was about half way out on the north beach I set about poking around with my trowel. Nothing. Hmm. More holes, still nothing. This wasn’t good, the clean white/grey sand beaches the penguins are so fond of is obviously very bad for worms. I found nothing at all in the high shore region so tramped disconsolately down the beach before deciding to go and try the south beach. Nothing. Another hole, still nothing, the caracaras were shadowing me, either hoping or expecting me to give up and drop dead at any second. As I plodded along this beach my eye was suddenly caught by a discrepancy on the surface. Looking closer the little grey spots looked like small worm casts, so out came the trowel. Success! I was so happy, I wasn’t going to leave with nothing! There weren’t many but I did manage to collect a small variety of worms, always keeping a sharp eye on anything I put down and occasionally having to shoo-off the insistent thieving birdlife. As I moved further down the shore with the tide, the casts became slightly more common and I felt that at least I would have a representative collection for the area. Beaches are not always teeming with worms and this was obviously one of those. At the end I went back over to the north beach to see if I had missed those small signs of worm life. I still couldn’t see anything but had a dig down at low water and did find a sparse population of worms to collect. The worms in this habitat apparently only inhabit the mid-low shore and not high shore at all.
The next day, blessed with blue skies and warm sunshine, I planned a hike up the east coast towards a sandy bay one of the owners had told me about where he said he had seen evidence of worms before. I knew it wasn’t close and 2.5 hours later I made it. As low water had been early morning I knew I wouldn’t be able to sample properly but at least would be able to do a bit from midshore upwards. I stared in dismay at the billions of tiny worm holes (photo 4) on the surface of the soft sand. The only way to do this beach justice would be several hours and a large spade, neither of which I had. With the tide rapidly encroaching I did what I could before retreating. I realized there was not a single penguin to be seen on this beach. It would seem that penguins and worms do not mix, a good beach for one is a bad beach for the other. I continued my hike a short distance further so I could see one of the other main highlights of the island, the black-browed albatross colony (photo 5) that breed here, then I headed back.
I used the late tide that night to investigate the local harbour 5 minutes from the settlement, happily poking around the mud and rocky foreshore. Amazingly, there were many polychaetes (family Cirratulidae, photo 6) sitting right out on the surface of the mud all over the place. Under the flat rocks of the foreshore I found large white sipunculans (photo 7), relatives of the polychaete group and a species of polychaete that I don’t think I have had anywhere else, a definite highlight for the trip.
Saturday (today) saw me return to Stanley with my haul and I then spent the rest of the morning doing more formaldehyde washing-out from last weeks specimens and packing my first box ready to post back on Monday!
Photo 8 is a map of the Falkland Islands indicating where I was.
Falkland Islands 2013: January 17th update
16.01.13: There was no sampling planned today but instead I took an opportunity to look after the samples I took on the first 2 days out. My samples are always ‘fixed’ in formaldehyde to preserve the animals properly for later investigation but formaldehyde is acidic and it is not good to keep specimens in the fluid for too long. After at least 2 days being ‘fixed’, they are washed with freshwater to remove the formaldehyde as well as the salt from the seawater and then placed into 70% ethanol for better long term preservation. The last time I was here I left this job until the last few days of stay and then it took me a very long time to get through all of the samples. This time, particularly as I do not have much time between the end of sampling and my flight home, I am trying to be more efficient and do this job roughly every week which means it will be fairly quick each time and I can then also get the samples packaged up and sent off at intervals. This in turn avoids trundling multiple boxes down the post office and seeing the horror on the person’s face as they peer over the counter at the pile on the floor to be processed for recorded delivery!
The next job on the list was to start writing the public talk I will be giving next week at Government House here in Stanley. The talk is on the progress of the project looking at the polychaete life in the Falkland Islands and will give a summary of the results so far from the last trip, including details of three new species discovered, as well as the purpose of this trip and where I will be visiting while here. Hopefully anyone who comes along will agree that the work is well worth doing and producing important results.
Unfortunately, the diving expedition I was due to go on for the next few days has had to be cancelled due to others being unavailable although I am promised some diving at least on Sunday if not Saturday as well. Instead I have planned a last minute trip to one of the outer islands, Saunders Island. Like many others, this island is a nature reserve although the owners have given me permission to do some extra sampling there. This will be part leisure as well as getting extra sampling in (never travel without your trusty trowel, sieve and pots) and I am looking forward to seeing some penguins again. This will also be the farthest north I get to on this trip and as such an important addition to the route. Wifi does not exist that far out so no updates until the weekend (or after).
Falkland Islands 2013 January 16th update
Due to a technical hitch the sampling at Whalebone Cove was postponed. Low tide was in fact 2 hours later than I thought as I had subtracted rather than added 1 hour for summertime, oops! Instead I got on the road to make the tide in the north (which I had worked out correctly). Three hours in the car brought me to Race Point Farm near Port San Carlos. This is in the northwest of East Falkland and had a very rocky shore with some large crevices in the rocks. These crevices could be split open with a spade and inside, hiding in the built up silt, were some very large worms indeed of the family Eunicidae (also known as ‘bobbit worms’ – google the phrase and you’ll find some footage of relatives of these worms hunting). The biggest of these measured around 20cm in length and as these worms have jaws I kept my fingers well away from the bitey end! The wind was whistling around the shore and despite being summer, my fingers were certainly cold. There was plenty to find though with colourful paddleworms being particularly common (photo 1). My bed for the night was a surprisingly cosy caravan at Elephant Beach Farm slightly further north. Despite how this sounds it really was comfortable, being fully equipped with power, hot shower and cooker and, even better, a freshly baked loaf of bread and some fresh eggs from the hens outside my door to keep me going.
Port Salvador was the next port of call and after calling in on the landowner, Nick Pitaluga, for a chat, he very kindly offered to drive me up to near Cape Bougainville right on the north tip of the coastline to sample there. This had originally been where I wanted to go but the road does not go that far and I had no desire (or permission) to take the hire car off road. The bone-rattling drive there, mostly on a visible track but the last part just generally cross-country toward the sea, confirmed that I would never have made it even halfway there without a guide. The exposed coastline was unsurprisingly rocky with long ledges of rock running out from the shore (photo 2). The tides are very low right now and the ledges were exposed right down into the kelp zone, where the enormous blades (nearly 1cm thick) of Lessonia kelp draped themselves over the rock and were so heavy they could barely be moved out of the way (photo 3). Underneath, in the cool damp crevices I found long tubes cemented to the rock. These turned out to be the home of large sabellariid worms (Phragmatopoma sp. photo 4), a relative of which lives in the UK and is known as the honeycomb worm for the tubes and occasionally reefs, it builds. Out here, this worm also sometimes creates reefs although here the tubes were individual. The worms inside are large, over 5 cm in length. I didn’t find any specimens of this family last time I was here so this was a very exciting find for me. Several scaleworms were also found sheltering in the crevices (photo 5).
On the drive back to the settlement I could see the sandy shores near it now exposed by the tide. These looked interesting so I decided to go back to the area the next day to do some digging there. This turned out to be a very rich beach and it was easy to see why there were so many wading birds around. The shore was literally covered with worm-holes and casts (photo 6) and I spent 3 hours working my around and down the shore with the tide. The weather by this time had changed from occasionally sunny (constantly windy) with a need for suncream even though I was feeling mildly hypothermic to mostly sunny with a feeling that I really might actually need the suncream (still windy).
On the drive back to Stanley that evening I felt that the first few days collecting had gone well. My main current concern is the fact that everyone I meet keeps trying to feed me either tea and cake or tea and biscuits (occasionally both). I have now given up on my post-Christmas attempt to wean myself off sugar.
On Wednesday I made it to Whalebone Cove having now worked the tides out properly. Amazingly the wind had dropped (not stopped obviously) which helped the tide go out as low as possible. This was important because I was after some particular lugworms that are only found at very low water. I found these last time and they appear to be different to the others higher up the shore. However, I didn’t find very many before so I needed to collect more to be sure that differences I see are not just natural variation but a definite consistent difference in body form. The wind and tide were kind and allowed me to get what I needed so then it was back to the lab to inspect my catch. Photo 7 shows a map with the locations of the sites mentioned above.
Falkland Islands research 2013: January 11th
It hasn’t been the best start. It’s never a good sign when your plane stalls on the tarmac while taxiing to the runway and everything goes dark. As calls of ‘get the jump leads out’ echoed around the plane, the pilot turned the key again and off we flew, landing at Ascension Island 8 hours later. Sat in the middle row of seats I was unaware of the events outside the plane but as we stopped the pilot, with a slightly embarrassed tone, announced that we would be delayed getting off the plane. It quickly circulated, from those that had witnessed the event, that our wing was now jammed under that of the only other plane on the tarmac. Great. The next 12 hours were a long story that involved our plane being declared unserviceable (after being separated from the other plane) and then, surprisingly and not a little worryingly, it was suddenly serviceable again, we were herded back on and on we flew. The landing at Mount Pleasant airport was mildly bumpy in the gale force winds that greeted us at 1am, 10 hours later than originally due but at least we were there.
This time I am based at the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) in Stanley, a new organisation that was created in early 2012. Its objective is to be a world class academic institute, based in the Falkland Islands, operating in the South Atlantic from the equator down to the ice in Antarctica, conducting world class research, teaching students, and building capacity within and between the UK South Atlantic Overseas Territories (UK OTs). The institute’s remit includes the natural and physical sciences (see http://www.south-atlantic-research.org).
Today I am just sorting out my itinerary and equipment and visiting the different facilities I will be using while I’m here. Then from tomorrow I’ll be back out on the beaches chasing worms. The first stop will be Whalebone Cove, a bay just outside Stanley that I visited last time. The lugworms I collected from there turned out to be very interesting indeed with a potentially new species involved and I would like to see if I can investigate those a little more. Then it’s a drive to the northwest for an afternoon tide.
It’s extremely windy here at the moment, even more so than usual, so I am hoping that this drops a little. It is sunny and warm though which is a nice change from the wet and grey weather I left behind and much better for sampling in.
The map of the Falkland Islands shows the sites I visited last year - this year I will mainly be sampling on the West Falkland.