I’ve always enjoyed swimming in the ocean and taking my dog for walks at a local beach. In the colder months gazing out at the vast ocean from the sand calms my mind, while my fearless dog plays in the water. I love to watch the waves dance on the beach, the white foam form and recede, the sun glitter on the surface.
Two years ago, determined to learn more about the New England shore, I spent a summer at Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island. At Shoals, students engage with field work, delving into the science of marine organisms and learning about the rocky coast. Appledore Island is part of the Isles of Shoals, an island chain located off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
I saw my first nudibranch in a tide pool on Appledore. Since nudibranchs can be notoriously hard to find, the hunt for the small invertebrate made finding one even more exciting. I was pleased to learn the serene ocean surface I love houses such fantastic small creatures.
Underneath the waves lies an interconnected and intricate web of species. Beautiful invertebrates like nudibranchs rely on other organisms like algae and sponges to live. While we watch the waves ebb and flow, below the surface millions of organisms are foraging and fighting, creating new life and decomposing old life.
The nudibranch I saw at Shoals is used to the cold New England waters. However, there are around 3000 different species, all with diverse and interesting adaptations and capabilities. Some live in tropical, deeper waters, while others make a home in tide pools on the rocky Maine coast. All nudibranchs are short lived (at most one year), but they live brilliantly.
Brightly colored nudibranchs exhibit warning coloring. The colors show predators the animal is poisonous. Some individuals concentrate poison from the sponges they eat in order to become toxic themselves. In an impressive feat, nudibranchs that feed on hydroids which contain nematocsyts (stinging cells) are able to retain the stinging cells without harming themselves. The nudibranchs can then store the cells and later deploy them against potential predators- a tricky maneuver!
Marine organisms rely on certain foods and temperatures in order to survive- just like you and me. For instance, if a nudibranch acclimated to a cool tide pool at Shoals was transported to the tropical sea, it would likely die. As the climate changes, the environment individual marine animals depend on is changing too. As part of a more than 40 year long monitoring project at Shoals, I (and a team of other interns) spent time identifying algae, dog whelks, periwinkles, and other marine organisms in the intertidal (the area between low and high tide). Comparing the information we collected with information from 40 years ago will help to paint a picture regarding long term changes on the shores of New England.
Learning more about interconnected and fascinating marine ecosystems can inspire us to work to protect our ocean in the face of climate change. Like some marine organisms that rely on each other in order to survive, we also exist in an interdependent relationship with the sea; half of the oxygen we breathe comes from small marine organisms called phytoplankton. Healthy ocean ecosystems benefit both the magnificent creatures that live in the water, and the humans on land that depend on them.
With the knowledge I’ve gained at Shoals I see the rocky coast with new eyes. I notice algal blooms, snails in tide pools, and blue mussel shells in the sand. Learning more about marine ecosystems has only enhanced my affinity for the sea. I was fortunate enough to work with a great team at Shoals in researching our ocean; I hope to partner with many more ocean enthusiasts in working to protect the beaches and shores I love.
Keren is a rising senior at Cornell University studying Biology and Society, with minors in Marine Biology and Science of Earth Systems. She has loved the ocean since she was old enough to walk along the sea shore. Keren recently spent time researching water quality on the Kona Coast of Hawai’i Island with The Nature Conservancy. She has also researched the Maine intertidal ecosystem as it reacts to climate change at Shoals Marine Laboratory. Keren is a native of Southern Maine, where she enjoys taking her dog for walks and exploring the rocky coast. She is excited to spend the summer interning with the Communications Department at CLF!