Friday, March 15, 2019

Taking Advantage of the Sunshine

As spring looms on the horizon—and with it the promise of warmer, sunshine-y days—AmeriCorps Volunteer Program Educator Mandi Johnson and I took advantage of the balmy weather last Sunday to get outside (and get some work done, too!).

Since October, Mandi, Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson, and a crew of our awesome volunteers have been hard at work coordinating the recovery, decomposition, and skeletal preservation of the northern elephant seal found washed up on Marrowstone Island last Halloween. You can learn more about the recovery process in Mandi’s blog posts here and here.

Five months later, some of the bones are ready to begin the final process of drying out and whitening (to make them more appealing for display). To do this, the bones need open air and sunshine—and a few hours of cooperative weather. Sunday afternoon looked like it was going to provide that opportunity. So, Mandi and I went out to the field in front of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center Museum, armed with a plastic tarp and a bucket full of seal bones.

Letting the bones soak up the sun is a great way to get  the moisture out of the bones after the decomposition
process. (Check out the size of the stubby rib in the center  of the picture!)

Sunning the bones ended up being a fantastic way to talk to other Fort Worden visitors who were also taking advantage of the weather. Lots of people stopped by to ask about the bones, and their curiosity led to some great discussions about the role these collections can play both in education and future scientific research.

It’s exciting to think about the learning opportunities these bones will continue to provide in the months and years to come. For now, I’ll have to be satisfied knowing more than a few people were shocked to see that a 14-foot-long animal could have stubby ribs shorter than the length of my hand (indicative of the impressively thick blubber layer these animals build up throughout their lives). At least one young visitor was surprised to see that the elephant seal’s humerus was probably shorter than her own!

The seal bones weren't the only ones enjoying the sunshine. 

Mandi and I eventually decided to wrap up Sunday’s sunning session as the light started to fade and the winds began to pick up. As we packed the bones away again—waiting for the next few sunny hours—it was pretty incredible to reflect on how far the cleaning process has progressed since Mandi, AmeriCorps Marine Exhibit Educator Marley Loomis, AmeriCorps Citizen Science Educator Michael Siddel, and I first responded to the elephant seal stranding call all those months ago.

And it turns out that—just like an elephant seal rib—sometimes a few hours in the sunshine does an AmeriCorps good, too.


Written by AmeriCorps Natural History Educator Ellie Kravets

Friday, March 8, 2019

Annual SoundToxins Gathering 2019

Earlier this week, I attended the annual SoundToxins gathering in Seattle. This event, held across two days at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Montlake, brought together people from NOAA, Washington Sea Grant, the Washington State Department of Health, and citizen science volunteers (including a handful from the Port Townsend Marine Science Center) who work collaboratively on the SoundToxins program.

For context, the SoundToxins program serves as an early warning system for harmful algal blooms. Citizen science volunteers collect water samples from sites all across Puget Sound, and look for the presence of four particular species of phytoplankton (Alexandrium, Dinophysis, Pseudo-nitzschia, and Heterosignma). These phytoplankton produce toxins which can make their way into shellfish, and eventually into humans when we consume them. If we can spot any of these phytoplankton ahead of time, then the public can be notified it is not safe to eat affected shellfish.

The first day of the gathering served as an information session for both new and returning volunteers. We went over the four harmful algal species that we monitor for, the toxins they produce, and the effects they have on people. Then, we were given the chance to sharpen our identification skills for the large number of other species of phytoplankton that we find in Puget Sound.

The SoundToxins annual meeting attendees
(Photo credit:Teri King)
We even got to look under a microscope at a recently-collected water sample and see living examples of these other phytoplankton species! This was particularly helpful for me, as I haven’t been able to see what many of these phytoplankton actually look like under a microscope.

The second day of the gathering focused more on important news, updates and interesting developments in the realm of harmful algal blooms. To begin, the Washington Department of Health gave a presentation about how they monitor for the toxins themselves in the tissues of shellfish across the state, and talked about their concerns about high levels of Alexandrium, the algal species known for producing a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Next, we learned about three other phytoplankton species (Akashiwo sanguinea, Protoceratium reticulatum, and Phaeocystis) that have been connected to shellfish mortalities. All SoundToxins volunteers were asked to keep an eye out for these species to hopefully prevent the loss of additional shellfish stocks.
Vera Trainer, a supervisory oceanographer at NOAA, gives a talk at the annual meeting
(Photo credit: Teri King) 
We also got to hear about the development of a remotely-operated aquatic glider that is able to collect water samples for monitoring.

All in all, I had a great time at the gathering. For me, getting to hear all the different stories and perspectives from the individuals involved with SoundToxins reinforced how truly important this program is.

Written by Michael Siddel, Citizen Science Educator AmeriCorps Member.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Northern Elephant Seal - Skeleton Update

Since November, the remains of our northern elephant seal have been naturally decomposing underneath our pier. Open-water maceration is one of the easiest methods for an organization like the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to manage an animal of this size. This allows the microorganisms in the ocean to “clean” the bones for us and keeps things like the smell to a minimum. However, this option can take a fair amount of time. So, I have been patiently waiting…

Curious why we have these remains? Read more on how and why we obtained them by clicking this link to a previous blog post.

We wrapped the skull in netting during the boil process
to help keep the bones from falling out of place.
Photo credit: Johanna King
The skull before we started the boiling process.
Photo credit: Johanna King



























Vertebrae boiling in one of the pots. 
Finally, in late December, we decided to pull the bones up from underneath our pier and see how far the decomposition had progressed. To our surprise, we found some of the bones in an advanced state of deterioration and ready for the next stage.

There are a few steps involved in processing bones for display in our exhibits. First, we must boil the bones as a way to cleanse and begin the degreasing procedure. Marine mammals tend to have especially oily bones, so the second step continues with a technique specifically designed for degreasing the bones.

Lastly, we will soak the bones in a hydrogen peroxide solution to whiten the bones for display. The flippers have not quite finished decomposing, however, so they were sent with volunteer Howard Teas to spend some time in his compost pile. Once they are ready, they will go through the same process for cleaning and aesthetics.

Mandi Johnson showing off a vertebrae in the steam. Photo credit: Johanna King

As you can see, this is a lengthy process!

PTMSC Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson and I started our boiling procedure on a beautiful sunny day in late January and had quite the setup. Volunteers Anne Seeley and Roy Clark loaned us two propane burners and three large pots, allowing us to have several sets of bones boiling at once.

Just behind our museum - our bone boiling work station!
Because we planned to boil these bones for several hours, this was an all-day ordeal. I even moved my “office” outside so I could keep an eye on the bones, answer questions from people passing by (asking why it smelled so bad), and get work done.

In my opinion, I couldn’t imagine a better workday!

Written by AmeriCorps Volunteer Program Educator Mandi Johnson