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 Museum
30.01.15 Additional story
Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of Falkland Islands weather, we are currently stuck in Stanley for an extra day after our flight was postponed last night for 24 hours. Apparently, gale force gusting crosswinds are not suitable for airplane takeoffs!
Still, it meant I had time to visit the new Falkland Islands Museum which I had not had time to get to during the last two weeks. I visited this museum two years ago before it was moved to its new location. Back then, it was in a small building at the top end of Stanley, every conceivable piece of space crammed with stories and displays each vying for attention but difficult to concentrate on due to the overcrowding. Now, it has a shiny new, custom-built, two-storey building on the central waterfront, the displays have more space to view and it is easier to see and follow the stories of the different aspects of Falklands culture.
This is a ‘local’ museum in the sense that it tells the story of the Falkland Islands from discovery and colonisation through to the present day, through social, natural, maritime and military histories. Not surprisingly, the social history aspects get the most detail and time and, slightly disappointingly, at least from my point of view, the natural history section is both small and fairly superficial. The most significant birds and mammals get a quick mention, invertebrates not at all, with no mention of the rich marine life found here. Geology fares even worse. There is however, a nice section on the commercial fisheries, their importance as well as the work done to monitor them, control them and help reduce bird mortalities associated with them. There is also a section on the current oil exploration. The Islands have long had associations with Antarctic exploration with many expeditions passing through the islands, Shackleton particularly spending time here. The ‘Reclus Hut’, for many years a research hut at Portal Point in the Antarctic, was shipped back here along with all of its contents before it was lost, after it had been closed and abandoned for many years. In the old museum, this was outside and was still faring badly in the weather. Now, it has a place inside along with the expeditionary stories related to its history and should last for many more years to come, reminding people just how tough Antarctic exploration was back then.
Outside, with more space and new coats of paint are the larger displays of maritime and military objects including a harpoon gun, now looking clean and shiny as opposed to the rusting relic it was before (see before and after photos). Unfortunately, the labels for these seem to have disappeared for now, with only my old photos to tell me what they are. Hopefully, these labels will be replaced soon as visitors will always want to know what it is they are looking at.
I’m glad the museum has been given more space and funds to properly showcase the Islands history and culture, the stories do deserve it. Perhaps in the future, they may be persuaded to expand the natural history sections in keeping with the variety and diversity of life they have here, also a story well-deserving of being told.
A non-biologist’s perspective
Here is the last in this series of blogs from the Falkland Islands, for now. An account of the trip by husband Brendan:
A non-biologist’s perspective on fieldwork and worm hunting
I remember having a conversation with my careers advisor when I was 16 about my A-Level choices, at the time I was really interested in Sharks and wanted to be a Marine Biologist. My ‘careers advisor’ then cheerfully informed me that to achieve this goal I would need to continue my Chemistry studies, at which point my heart sank and my visions of playing with Great Whites became distant fantasies.
My interest in the underwater world never really left me but I also never really got to understand what being a Marine Biologist would actually entail. This trip in many ways has been an eye opener as it has provided me with an insight into what it is actually like to pursue Marine Biology and the level of dedication required.
My first lesson in advanced rock pooling began at a place called Rincon Grande in the north of the Falkland Islands. The excitement I felt as I started picking my way through the pools and looking under rocks and actually being more successful than Teresa in finding a range of worms, including my first scale worm quickly led to stoic perseverance as I then went on to find a succession of ragworms for what felt like hours. There was at least one stage when I wished we were looking for starfish as these seemed to be everywhere but were apparently not of interest.
One of the key things that Teresa was trying to do was identify the diversity of worms in any location and that meant trying to find as much as possible and ideally a sample of more than one of each. In many of the locations we went to, this meant spending 2 or 3 hours persistently combing the rocks and digging through what sediment there was to try and find as much as possible in the short window the tides provided us with (photo 1). This tried both of our patience on several occasions as travel in the Falklands over what is considered roads, which we would consider simply a pot holed gravel drive, means that you arrive feeling battered and bruised before you then spend a couple of hours crouched on a beach in weather that seemed to vary from one extreme to another hunting an, at times, elusive prey.
Whilst collecting on a beach where you can stand on something solid whilst holding a piece of rock in one hand and using the forceps in your other hand to pick off a worm that might be only a few millimeters long is challenging. Trying to do this underwater, whilst you have one hand on the rock to try and steady yourself against the rolling ground swell that is trying to alternately tangle you in the kelp or pound you against the rock that you are trying to prize a sample off with the dive knife that you are holding in your other hand is a different matter altogether (photos 2 & 3)! The really challenging thing was that after you had managed to prize the sample off the rock you need to get it into a plastic sample bag (ziplock freezer bag) without losing everything – apparently I failed in this respect. Whilst I can’t hide the fact that the trowel and the all important brass snap lock (yes she has mentioned it more than once) did get left behind my argument is still that the sample was more important and that was recovered! I also never realised just how difficult it could be to open, put something into and then reseal a zip lock bag whilst wearing neoprene gloves that are 5mm thick!
Whilst the beach sampling and the diving both presented challenges the rewards do come when you get to view your catch down the microscope. What on the beach looks like a small orange blob is transformed into an elegant looking worm with a flowing mane of orange hair (a cirratulid – photo 4). If you’re really lucky you get rewarded with a scale worm, resplendent in its glistening armour (photo 5), if you’re unlucky, well it’s just another ragworm…..
All in all whilst ‘rock pooling for adults’ may not be entirely accurate, I have to admire the persistence and knowledge required to do what I dreamed of doing as a young man in Leeds.
Sea Lion Island
For the last 2 days, we have been out on Sea Lion Island, the southern-most outpost of all of the islands. Once again, we ended up on a flight that landed over an hour after low tide, even though the tide was at 4pm! This was very frustrating but we were straight out as soon as we could, and down on the nearest patch of shoreline to see what we could do. My trusty trowel had been replaced with a coal shovel, the best I could manage at short notice but it would have to do. Although the shore was the kind I knew would be poor for worms (favoured by penguins) we had a go. No luck. At the end of the bay were some rock ledges with a few rock pools with some sand and algae not yet being affected by the rising tide. We suddenly started finding a (very) few worms under the sand in the pools and then I also noticed some small casts as well (see photo 1). This spurred us on to keep looking and at least come away with something (photo 2). We eventually ended up with a small pot that turned out to be slightly more diverse than expected with at least four different species represented (not bad for a fairly bare rock pool and only just over a dozen animals). The most common animal in the pot was an animal known as Boccardia, which is very hardy and often found in the higher shore environments here (photo 3).
The following day dawned windy and wet and the tide was not until nearly 5pm. This gave us plenty of time to peruse the island, see the sights and check out the coastline as the island is only around 5 miles long. I had been here before a few years ago and had already sampled some of the rocky shores on the south side so was more interested in trying to get something from the northern coasts. Shortly after we set off the rain started, although not too heavily. On one of the first shores we visited we found a male sea lion (photo 4), fast asleep. A fantastic sight and one I had not seen before so that improved our mildly damp spirits. By lunchtime, the rain had become persistent and not so light anymore. Our waterproofs were holding out but both pairs of feet were increasingly squelchy. As we turned to follow the north coast back up the island, we found ourselves heading into the wind. Suddenly life felt a little unfair. Most of the shores we had seen were either inaccessible below vertical cliffs, clean boulders in equally clean mobile sand with no life beneath or solid rock ledges, scoured clean by sea and weather. We eventually fought our way back to the bay we had started at the night before, but this time a couple of hours before low tide to find it being pounded by waves. We dug a few holes but there was nothing apparent. After a brief sit down to stare vacantly at the shore while being eyed up by an obviously nesting pair of caracaras who just as obviously didn’t want us there, we decided to head directly across the island to the opposite, sheltered shore and try there instead. We then walked the length of the shore, digging small holes every so often like itinerant squirrels, as the tide slowly ebbed out. Still nothing. We crossed back to the other shore and walked the length of that too, just to say we tried. Salvation came in the form of washed up kelp bladders that were encrusted with the small coiled tubes of spirorbid worms that were still alive (photo 5). We finally allowed ourselves to retire to the lodge, peel off our boots and wring out our socks.
Today was even windier and I have to admit the will and strength to fight my way through it had gone. Our flight back after lunch was short with an even shorter take-off and landing thanks to the wind. Tomorrow I have to pack all of my samples up and make sure they are ready for sending home before doing the same for myself.
Brendan is tasked with the job of finishing off the blog for you, giving a non-biologist’s view of fieldwork and worms and the delights of getting involved with both for the first time. Then it’s an early start on Friday before the long haul home.
Paddleworms and Trowels
Today was packed full. Brendan managed to get a dive in before we had to head down to Walker Creek for an afternoon tide. The shore dive went from near Gypsy Cove, not far out of Stanley and involved a short off-road drive to the shore before the divers had to pick their way down across the rocks to get into the water (photo 1). Apparently visibility was reasonable at around 6m and Brendan’s present to me this time consisted of a bag of sand and a couple of bags of ‘stuff’ scraped off the rocks. Unfortunately, Brendan found his way into my bad books by admitting to have lost my ‘dive trowel’. This tool has been great for sediment sampling while diving, as well as shore sampling when not possible to take a spade. Admittedly, the trowel was a cheap plastic one, however the not so cheap brass clip attached to it was another matter!
After the dive, we headed straight off to Walker Creek, which was a 2.5 hour drive south, almost to the opposite end of the island. The shore turned out to be another hard-ish one (photo 2), which was a little disappointing at first, but the collecting turned out to be quite productive. We found some very large orbiniid worms (20-30 cm in length) and an area where there were abundant scaleworms, under more than two thirds of the stones turned over. With the drive back a long and bumpy one, we stopped after an hour so that I could sort through and ‘fix’ (with formaldehyde) the worms and label pots. I have learnt in the past that worms do not enjoy long, bumpy car journeys and break up (particularly more fragile specimens) by the journey end if this is not done.
No shore sampling was planned for today, however, Brendan has managed to get out on 2 different shore dives while I sorted through previous samples, changed formaldehyde to alcohol (a better, less toxic, long term preservative but not as good for the initial fixation) and generally caught up on fieldwork and specimen notes. At lunchtime, the divers returned bearing gifts (even without a trowel). The dive had been on a local Phragmatopoma reef. This is a type of marine bristle worm called a sabellariid (photo 3) that builds hard tubes of sand and can create a reef-like environment around itself. In the UK, other worms of the same family create reefs both on and offshore and are known as ‘honeycomb worms’ due to the appearance of the reef they create. Many other species often inhabit these reefs as well. I was presented with some examples of the reef, some scrapings from rocks and a very large, green paddleworm (photo 4: Eulalia magalhaensis) over 20 cm in length. Another two species of paddleworm, not yet identified, were also found within the samples. These often-colourful worms are very photogenic and I managed to get some good photos of these as well (photos 5 & 6). All in all, a successful day, even without any shore sampling. Loss of the trowel was forgiven!
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!