Bay Area Science: An Interview with a Kelp Biologist

Meet Sara Gonzalez, a kelp biologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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A view of the Pacific shore from Santa Cruz, Ca. Note the giant kelp floating on the water’s surface in the distance.

Gulls cried in the distance as we walked along the shore at Natural Bridges State Beach. The air was crisp with a twinge of salt. We had passed numerous brown mounds of kelp when Sara excitedly pointed to a kelp mass strewn on the beach closer to the water’s edge. We found just what we were looking for: giant kelp, Sara’s primary study species.

Sara knelt down beside a piece and picked up one of the bladesthe kelp’s leaf-like structures.

“You can see the really deep corrugations here, and the blade’s serrated edge.” She pointed to the corrugations, or grooves, carved into the kelp’s blade. She gently traced her finger along the serrated edges as I watched intently, realizing I would have missed these delicate details had I not been with Sara.

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Giant kelp is widely distributed around the world, found along the coast of North and South America, Africa, Australia, and beyond. Distinct geological regions are home to giant kelp populations that look vastly different – despite being the same species.

“Some of these forms are so distinct that they used to be classified as separate species,” Sara explained. “Now they are termed ‘ecomorphs’ of the same species.” Different kelp ecomorphs, or individuals of the same species with different physical characteristics, vary in the form of their blades and the structures they use to anchor themselves to the ocean floor.

Sara Gonzalez is a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Previously, she studied biology at Cornell University. Trading upstate New York’s bitter winters for warmer weather and sandy beaches, she came to Santa Cruz to study kelp with Dr. Pete Raimondi.

Sara’s work with kelp began during a Fulbright Scholarship project in Chile. There, she collaborated with other marine researchers at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile to study the influence of nutrients from fish excrement on kelp growth. I imagined her on the incredible Chilean coast studying its marine life, acquainting herself with the landscapes praised in poems by the famous Pablo Neruda.

While collaborating with Chilean academics studying kelp, Sara realized how embedded kelp is in today’s society as a natural resource. Kelp is harvested for its alginates, a polysaccharide found within the cell walls of all brown algae. When alginate combines with water, it forms a thick gum-like texture, which can be used in products ranging from cosmetics, daily-use items such as toothpaste, and foods such as ice cream.

“It was an interest that grew over time – being around kelp, and talking to people about kelp all the time. I got really excited about it,” Sara said, smiling and looking out towards the water.

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Sara examining kelp on the beach of Natural Bridges State Beach.

Kelp is a foundation species, meaning it plays an important role in its community. It also forms an entire ecosystem: the kelp forest.

“The high productivity of the kelp forest and varied physical structure from the base to the canopy provide the foundation to support a diverse array of life, including many commercially and recreationally harvested species such as kelp bass, several species of rockfish, and the kelp itself,” Sara explained.

Organisms, ranging from invertebrates to fish to mammals, rely on kelp forests as a place to live, forage, and reproduce. Kelp forests also protect shorelines from erosion by creating drag against waves coming to shore.

Sara’s time in Chile piqued her interest in the morphological differences between Californian and Chilean kelp. This interest grew into a well-formed project as a graduate student. At Santa Cruz, she is studying the environment’s role in determining the kelp ecomorphs and its effects on the production of alginate.

However, today, we were two just two naturalists combing the beach shore.

We approached another mass of kelp, flushing a swarm of small insects as we knelt down beside it. Sara, ignoring the insects, reached down her hands to pick up a kelp mass the size of a soccer ball.

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A kelp holdfast, held by Sara.

“This is the holdfast,” she explained, turning over the ball, which appeared to be a mass of root-looking structures. “It’s composed of haptera, which are these root-looking things.” She pointed out the network of twisting haptera, growing tightly together in a pattern which resembled the creases of a brain.

On our coast, giant kelp forests grow up to 50 meters from the ocean floor, eventually reaching the water’s surface.

“As it grows, the kelp forms more and more of these haptera, until you end up with this big, netted mass of them.” Sara slowly turned over the holdfast for me to see, pointing out the layers the haptera formed. Despite its resemblance to a mass of plant roots, she explained, a kelp’s holdfast doesn’t act like a root system at all. Rather, it’s used by kelp to anchor itself to substrate. She carefully placed the holdfast back near the pile of kelp blades.

Over the course of our walk along the beach, we encountered 3 different species of kelp: the giant kelp with its densely grooved blades, the chain bladder kelp with its line of bubble-like protrusions, and the feather boa kelp, which looked, not surprisingly, like a long feather boa.

However, our giant kelp specimen was by far the most physically impressive. Scientifically, giant kelp is equally astounding: it is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, accumulating 12 to 18 inches of growth per day. Their high growth rates make kelp forests one of the most biologically productive communities – comparable to tropical rain forests.

Moving forward, Sara plans to continue her kelp studies by conducting a series of experiments. By rearing kelp in the lab and simultaneously planting them in the ocean, Sara will be able to elucidate the importance of environmental versus genetic factors in kelp morphology and alginate production.

Sara’s work in Chile also shed some light on the importance of nitrogen in fish excrement for kelp growth, and its role in reducing blade decay. These preliminary results prompted Sara to focus on the effects of ammonium on kelp – being the nitrogen product from fish excretion, after the ocean’s pH conditions react with the ammonia from the waste. Less is known about ammonium’s effects on kelp when compared to its close chemical relative, nitrate.

“In parts of California, there are times of the year when nitrate levels are reduced, so it is important to understand the potential contribution of fish-derived nitrogen, especially as oceanic conditions in the future are likely to change,” Sara explained.

We continued down the shore, eventually reaching a rockface with shallow pools carved into it. Inside the pools, anemones dotted the edges like flowers, their tentacles spread out like delicate sea petals. Around the pools, masses of washed-up giant kelp spread out like carpets on the rocks.

I thought of the kelp’s holdfast: its dense network of haptera forming a stronghold to the ocean floor as the kelp grows towards the water’s surface. Then, I thought of Sara. Her ideas seemed to grow in an analogous way, forming a dense network of enthusiasm and curiosity to anchor her as she reaches towards the answers.

We returned to the beach and meandered back towards my parked car, absorbed in our conversation as gulls flew overhead.

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Footprints in the sand along Natural Bridges State Beach.

If you are a scientist living in or around the Bay Area and are interested in an interview, feel free to contact bayareanaturalist (at) gmail.com.

5 Ways Birdwatching Has Changed My Life

There are very few hobbies that I can say have changed my life for the better, and birding is at the top of that list. Here are just a few ways that birding has influenced me.

I have many hobbies that have enriched my life: reading, cooking, and dancing hula all come to mind as interests that make me feel happy and fulfilled. That said, there are very few hobbies that I can say have changed my life for the better. Here are just a few ways birding has influenced me.

1. Birdwatching taught me how to pay attention.

Birding has completely transformed my day-to-day activities by teaching me how to pay attention. While birding has allowed me to further develop my attention span, it has also taught me how to integrate nature into my day-to-day activities by simply paying attention.

Take walking from your parked car to a building as an example. Before I learned the sights and sounds of individual bird species, a walk from my car was just another task. Learning how to watch birds has flipped an irreversible switch in my mind, turning every moment outside into an opportunity to see or hear new things.

Today, even when doing something as simple as watering my plants outdoors, I passively pay attention to who’s around. Dark-eyed junco hopping underneath my gardening shelves, looking for spilled seed. House finch singing from a perch on the ornamental tree across the street. It’s an incredible gift that I’m grateful to have learned.

2. Watching birds got me to spend more time outside.

I’ve always loved the outdoors, but birding has presented me with the incentive to explore as many new habitats as possible, in hopes of observing more bird diversity.

Since I’ve begun birding, I’ve travelled to habitats ranging from rocky seashores to the edges of lush agricultural fields in search of a particular species. I’ve gotten to know a diversity of places, thanks to the journeys that birdwatching has brought me on.

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Birding on the rocky shores of the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

3. Birds were a gateway to learning about other incredible wildlife.

Birds, like all other life, interact with a myriad of other species in their day-to-day activities.

As an avid birdwatcher, you sometimes can’t help but wonder who else is in the picture as you’re watching a particular bird. What kind of shrub is that California towhee scuttling under? What kind of plant is that song sparrow using as its singing perch? What kind of mammal did that red-tailed hawk just snatch up? 

These are common questions running through my mind as I watch birds, and are all musings that prompt me to jump on my computer once I’m back home to do some research. This cycle has led me to discover the names and life histories of many non-bird species, thus allowing me to become a more well-rounded nature lover.

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Shorebirds gather at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve.

4. Birdwatching has brought me to an amazing, tight-knit birding community.

Joy loves company, as proven time and time again in the friends that I’ve made through birding. Whether I’m living in the San Francisco Bay Area, upstate New York, or in the suburbs of Australia, there isn’t a single place that I haven’t found a tight-knit and supportive group of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. By joining local birding email listservs, local Audubon chapters, or even visiting a local nature center, I’ve met many new, welcoming faces.

5. Watching birds has allowed me to deepen my knowledge and involvement in local conservation issues.

Being a part of the birding community also meant joining forces with incredible advocates and leaders in environmental grassroots movements. Because of my involvement in the birding community, I’ve been able to learn more about important local conservation issues and projects that impact the habitats of native species.

In the Bay Area alone, I’ve been exposed to the wonders of wetlands restoration for native species, the declines of raptors such as American kestrels and burrowing owls, and the impacts that even a single crumb left behind at a campsite can have on the dynamic between Steller’s jays and marbled murrelets. While I would have likely read about these issues before becoming a birder, being an avid birdwatcher brings you that much closer to the battlefront of local conservation concerns.

(Bonus) 6. The excitement doesn’t stop at watching birds.

Birding has brought me happiness beyond just watching birds – it has allowed me to find other outlets for my passions, whether it be science education and outreach, science writing, photography, or travel.

Letting birds into my life has given me an incredible sense of purpose and belonging, and I can only hope that it will do the same in yours. Cheers to your next (or first!) birding adventure.

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Me doing a bird banding demonstration with an American goldfinch to a group of young girls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Migration Celebration.

For more information on local bird species in the Bay Area, check out our wildlife resources on birds.

Hike a Closed Section of Highway 1 at Devil’s Slide Trail

Pacifica, Ca – Once a troublesome segment of highway, Devil’s Slide Trail was converted into a recreational trail in 2014. Visit the area to see awesome seabirds and raptors, and to learn more about the Common Murre Restoration Project that’s active in the area.

Species to Look Out For

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Common Murre

About the Park

Pacifica, Ca – Segment of California Coastal Trail

Science Spotlight: Common Murre Restoration at Egg Rock

Common murres are gorgeous and vaguely penguin-looking seabirds. Common murres actively breed in colonies at Egg Rock, which is visible from Devil’s Slide Trail.

The Egg Rock colony was estimated to have 3,000 birds in the early 1980’s; however, disaster struck with the 1986 Apex Houston oil spill. The oil spill delivered a fatal blow to the common murre population, eliminating the birds at Egg Rock. Scientists, determined not to let the population of common murres vanish, formed the Common Murre Restoration Project. The project, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, set out to restore the Egg Rock population that was wiped out during the oil spill. It also sought to increase the numbers of common murres and other seabirds across Central California.

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Egg Rock, visible just offshore of the Devil’s Slide Trail.

To restore murres, the project employed social attraction techniques. Social attraction, first developed by Project Puffin to restore breeding Atlantic puffin populations, works by tricking birds into thinking that other individuals of the same species are already present at a specific location. This incentivizes breeding birds to set up their nests at that location.

To trick the common murres at Egg Rock, scientists placed common murre decoys on the island, played common murre sounds from speakers, and placed mirrors at the site to create the illusion of movement to birds flying overhead. And the result? The murre breeding colony on Egg Rock has been restored, and has increased every year since the project’s implementation in 1996.

To read more about common murres and their restoration around Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide, check out the Bay Area Naturalist article “Social Attraction: The Story of California’s Common Murres“.

Park History

Devil’s Slide Trail is a segment that was formerly part of scenic Highway 1. Frequent landslides and closures made this a particularly troublesome segment of highway, prompting talk of opening an alternative route over Montara Mountain. Local public outcry strongly opposed the conversion of the mountain into a highway, and grassroots efforts worked to advocate for the opening of a tunnel instead. In a sweeping success, Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in 2013, protecting the mountain and allowing the scenic views of our coast to be preserved.

In 2014, the Devil’s Slide segment of Highway 1 was converted into a recreational trail for joggers, bikers, and hikers. The trail is also a part of the California Coastal Trail, which will extend 1,200 miles along the coast from Mexico to Oregon once completed.

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Sedimentary rock formation along the Devil’s Slide Trail.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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Enjoy the Stillness of Redwood Stands at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve

Half Moon Bay, Ca – Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve offers rich history and wildlife. Learn about its recovery from logging and its amphibian resident, the California newt.

Species to Look Out For

About the Park

Half Moon Bay, Ca – Nature Preserve

Science Spotlight: California Newts at Purisima Creek

Dan and I encountered our first California newt while hiking alongside Purisima Creek. We had been on the lookout for newts for the past few weeks, so you can only imagine our excitement when seeing a bright orange amphibian crossing our path.

California newts are found along the coast and mountain ranges of California, from Mendocino County to San Diego County. They are endemic to California, meaning that they are not found outside the state. They live a dual lifestyle, spending half of their time in water and the other half on land.

California newts are listed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife as a “Species of Special Concern”. Ponds that they use for breeding and maturation have been lost to development. Fish, crayfish, and bullfrogs introduced to California’s freshwater areas threaten populations by eating California newt eggs and young.

Look out for California newts during their migration to their breeding grounds, which usually coincides with the first rains in the fall. If you see one of these bright creatures along the trail, be sure to not pick them up! Not only could you disturb them, but their skin is also loaded with a neurotoxin. The toxin, tetrodotoxin, is found in all species in their genus. It is also found in pufferfish.

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A California newt near the creek’s edge at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

Park History

Prior to its status as a nature preserve, the Purisima Creek area housed seven saw mills supplying coast redwood lumber to the booming gold rush population in the San Francisco Bay Area. The entire preserve was cleared of trees that were large and intact enough for lumber.

The Save-the-Redwoods League gifted $2 million to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space, which allowed for the establishment of the park. Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve offers 4,711 acres of recovering coast redwood forest, creeks, and a canyon.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Logging, Crumbs, and Lost Fish: The Story of the Marbled Murrelet

Cover photo: © Tom Benson, 2014, some rights reserved.

Did you know that there’s a seabird that builds its nest high up in redwood trees? Learn about the marbled murrelet – from their breeding biology to what we think could be causing their population declines.

Cover photo: © Tom Benson, 2014, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Quick Facts

  • Marbled murrelets are seabirds that venture inland to build their nests high up in redwood trees.
  • The health of coast redwood forests affects marbled murrelet populations, since murrelets need redwood forest habitats to breed.
  • Despite considerable conservation of redwood forests, marbled murrelet numbers are still declining by 4 percent annually.
  • Scientists have found that predation by Steller’s jays attracted to campgrounds by human food is affecting marbled murrelet numbers.
  • Since murrelets are seabirds, the health of our oceans could also be impacting marbled murrelet populations.

 

The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

Our story begins with a mystery.

Marbled murrelets are robin-sized seabirds that are closely related to puffins and murres. As is the norm for other seabirds, scientists expected the marbled murrelet to nest in large colonies along the rocky coast. Yet no such breeding colonies of marbled murrelets were found, despite the habits of their close relatives. The nesting place of the marbled murrelet remained an unsolved mystery to ornithologists in North America for over a century.

This changed in 1974, when a worker performing maintenance at Big Basin State Park discovered a lone nest high up in a redwood tree. The nest contained a single chick, which strangely had webbed feet. He snapped a photo that was later identified by bird experts as a marbled murrelet youngster. The mystery of the marbled murrelet nesting place was solved.

Defying all expectations of a seabird, these clever nesters fly 20 miles inland to construct nests high up in the cover of redwood trees. With this discovery, the marbled murrelet became the most recent bird species to have its nest found in North America.

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A coast redwood towering over the trail at Big Basin State Park, the site of the first documented marbled murrelet nest. Old-growth coast redwoods are the nesting sites of marbled murrelets.

Logging and the Loss of Murrelets

The California Gold Rush of 1848 brought steep human population increases to the San Francisco Bay Area – and with these population increases also came a huge demand for lumber. Settlers turned to the redwood stands along California’s coast for their supply. The irresponsible logging stripped most of the old-growth redwood forest from our coastline. It is estimated that only 5% of old-growth coast redwood trees survived logging.

Coast redwoods are critical to breeding marbled murrelets. Thus, the declines of redwood forests were closely intertwined to declines in marbled murrelet populations. The low murrelet numbers recorded off our coasts resulted in their listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1992. In California, they are state-listed as endangered.

The fate of the murrelets, along with other calls for the reduction of logging in the northwest, led to the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan under President Clinton. The plan protected 9.7 million hectares of old-growth forest along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Despite the protected breeding habitats, scientists monitoring murrelet populations still found that their numbers were declining. The population around California, Oregon, and Washington is continuing to decline by as much as 4 percent per year.

Crumbs, Jays, and Predation

A study at Redwood National and State Parks discovered one potential cause of the murrelet declines: predation by other birds, namely Steller’s jays.

Steller’s jays are crested blue and black birds found along the west coast of North America and south into Mexico. They are corvids, belonging to the same family as crows, ravens, and other jays. In addition to their diets of plant matter and insects, they will eat the eggs and young of other bird species.

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A common sign at campgrounds, featuring a Steller’s jay and a warning to clean up all traces of food. Source: Save the Redwoods League.

Steller’s jays are common at campgrounds, as their varied diet is supplemented by leftover food and crumbs from humans. These “crummy” areas attract jays and increase their density, thereby increasing the chances of Steller’s jays finding and predating the nests of marbled murrelets.

Public education programs are in place to decrease the amount of food left behind by humans. The initiative’s goal is to decrease the number of murrelet predators attracted to a given area. Signs are present in parks, warning people that food waste (even as small as a single crumb) has the potential to impact marbled murrelets.

Ocean Threats Still Loom

Scientists still don’t have all of the answers to what’s causing the murrelet population decline.

One factor affecting their numbers could be the availability of food off our coast. A study in Washington found that 80% of marbled murrelet nest attempts failed due to issues relating to low prey availability.

We do know that more frequent and intense El Niño events caused by climate change are negatively impacting fish populations. El Niño is a naturally-occurring phenomenon in which the number of upwellings of nutrient-rich cold water is reduced relative to “normal” years. Plankton, a main food source for fish, rely on the nutrients from the upwellings. With no plankton to eat, the fish populations (and the seabirds that depend on them) can be negatively impacted.

What does this mean for the marbled murrelet? Our efforts on land can be executed flawlessly, but the dual-lifestyle of this enigmatic seabird makes it so that their populations can still be harmed by threats to our oceans.

Stories such as these bring to light the importance of protecting as many diverse areas as possible. A holistic approach to conservation is necessary to save species that live such diverse lives.

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A view of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Sources:

The ‘Not-so’ Lesser Goldfinch

Cover photo: © Ingrid Taylar, 2017, some rights reserved.

Did you know that lesser goldfinches copy the sounds of other birds in their song? Learn about this and more in post about the lesser goldfinch!

Cover photo: © Ingrid Taylar, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Lesser Goldfinches

Pearson-Arastradero Circle

Pearson-Arastradero Preserve

 

Lesser goldfinches are a common California bird.

They can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from oak and eucalyptus forests to neighborhood backyards. I’m used to seeing them frequently flitting between shrubs around my neighborhood or perched on tall grass in open habitats.

Their range in the United States extends across the southwest, and down into Mexico and Central America.

Lesser goldfinches look a lot like their close relatives, American goldfinches.

Lesser goldfinches are the smallest goldfinch species in the U.S. at 3.5 – 4.7 inches. They have black wings, tails, and crowns, with yellow underparts (the area encompassing the breast, belly, and beneath the tail).

Lesser goldfinches look very similar to their close relatives, the American goldfinch. Two distinguishing characteristics between lesser and American goldfinches are their bills and the presence or absence of a white patch on their wings. Lesser goldfinches have black bills, whereas American goldfinches have orange bills. Lesser goldfinches also have a prominent white patch on their primary wing feathers (the longest feathers on their wings), whereas this feature is absent in American goldfinches.

Female lesser goldfinches look very similar to the males, but are lacking the black cap.

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Photo © 2018 Matthew Buynoski. Male lesser goldfinch at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto, Ca.

Lesser goldfinches eat mostly seeds, but will also snack on small insects.

Their short, thick bills make these finches perfect for eating seeds. They will also eat small insects such as aphids. They are commonly found associated with thistle, eating the seeds both at feeders and on the plant itself.

These bright birds frequent my feeder at home as well! From my observations, they to tend prefer black oil sunflower and nyjer seeds.

Both the male and female lesser goldfinch will raise young.

Lesser goldfinches build cup nests (nests that are shaped like a bowl), and breed starting around April. They build their nests in trees or shrubs above the ground, laying 4-5 eggs which hatch after 12 days of incubation. Both parents will take turns feeding the young, which will leave the nest after 12 – 15 days.

Lesser goldfinches that live in California don’t usually migrate.

While many species of bird migrate south for the winter to escape cold temperatures, lesser goldfinches that live in California don’t usually migrate. Populations that live farther north will sometimes migrate short distances in the winter.

Cool facts about lesser goldfinches:

  • Just like pet parrots will mimic (copy) the sounds around their homes, lesser goldfinches are known to copy the sounds of other birds in their song.
  • Lesser goldfinches are one of three goldfinch species in the United States: the lesser goldfinch, the American goldfinch, and Lawrence’s goldfinch. All three species can be found in California (but Lawrence’s only when they’re breeding!).

Resources to learn more: