Monday, January 24, 2011

Trip Into the Past; Icthology Lab: Favorite College Course

Sampling a Yellowedge Grouper; Miss Heather, Gulf of Mexico 05.2009

When I first graduated high school I had two very important decisions to make: 1) Finalize my college choices on what campus I am attending in the fall; and 2) Make certain the college that I select has a great hands on experience Marine Biology program. With much preparation I limited my choices down to the Pennsylvania State University and Florida State University. Luckily, I was recruited to play softball for both colleges. I am a huge athlete and was known for my softball skills in high school. I loved sports so I played a forward and striker in soccer (or known to the British as football), I held the position of forward in basketball, and I managed to start as a first baseman in softball all throughout high school. I was given the position of a starter first baseman for PSU; however, FSU could only offer me a walk on position for their team (my position there was undetermined). With much consideration I chose PSU for my final selection. I never once regretted this decision. Strategically, I was able to balance my academics and softball during the season.

Weighing a Snowy or Brown Grouper; Miss Heather, Gulf of Mexico 05.2009

I started majoring in Biology my sophomore year, but changed to Wildlife & Fishery Science: specializing in Fishery Science due to the lack of research projects and personal interactions with the environment. I absolutely loved this field because many of the courses were based outside and various research projects were hands on experience. One of my favorite classes was Icthology Lab, which is the study of fish. My classmates and I had to identify over 300 specimens that were located in jars in the classroom. The key was to identify the fish utilizing a dichotomous key, which helped you determine not only the scientific name of the fish, but also what family it belonged to. In addition, I absorbed a great deal of facts about these freshwater organisms and their national distribution in the United States bodies of waters; more specifically Pennsylvanian waters. This definitely was also one of my most challenging courses in my undergraduate studies. Unfortunately, most of the markings on the fish disappeared because they were kept in jars for 30+ years! They were covered in a clear liquid that helped preserve the fish. I discovered the best way to rely on the identification of these specimens were to observe the main features on the fish (anal spines, rays, specific physical characteristics, etc).

My professor explained that in any dichotomous key, you always start at #1. I liked this concept because I like a choose-your-own-adventure story, which here you are given two paths to choose from. Each number has 2 choices, or characteristics, that describe the specimen. Each step usually gives you an answer or a direction (go to #3). You may skip a step in a key based on the directions you follow. If your specimen doesn’t fit into either characteristic, go back a step and see if you made the right choice. By observing carefully, you can get the right answers. Of course if your specimen doesn’t fit at all, you may have discovered a new species! I found it particularly interesting that dichotomous keys are also used to determine trees; which I later learned from a good friend who took Dendrology (the study of trees). 

Apart from the dichotomous keys that we formulated based on the fishery populations that we were studying on a daily basis, one of the perks of this course was the hands on experience exercises that were given weekly. The coolest and most exciting exercise that we practiced in the river next to the campus was electrofishing. What is electrofishing you may ask? Electrofishing is when a researcher places an electric current in the water and stuns the fish before they are captured. This is one of the best scientific survey methods and a key tool for fishery management that was used to sample fish populations, which in result determine abundance, density, and species composition. The main purposes of electrofishing were stock assessment, sampling surveys, tagging, catching spawners, anaesthetising or eliminating species. 

Measuring a Mahi-Mahi; Miss Heather, Gulf of Mexico 05.2009

During one of the electrofishing surveys my hip waders caught onto a branch supported on the corroded bank. I was to busy targeting a school of Rainbow trout that I did not even notice it! Long story short, as I tripped into the electrified water the equipment quickly shut off! I was stunned for a second or two. After that, I realized how stunning this exercise really was! At this particular moment I knew I wanted work in the natural habitat with the specimen/specimens that I was researching. I would not settle for anything less; working in an aquarium would not suffice. A critical setback like this event was well worth the experience that I would later endure in life.

The following photographs that I have included are from working on a commercial fishermen boat called the Miss Heather located in the Gulf of Mexico of 2009. I will have more details about this rotation and the challenges that I had faced in a later post.