Views From the Trias House: Aboard the HWS Research Vessel, Searching for Shrimp

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(The view from the deck of The William Scandling, headed out onto Lake Seneca, on the hunt for tiny freshwater shrimp.)

This post is one of several about my experiences in the Finger Lakes District in upstate New York while serving as the Trias writer-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Geneva).

One of the unique opportunities Ann and I have had this semester is to accompany biologists on a night expedition aboard The William Scandling, the Hobart and William Smith Colleges research vessel. The mission? To collect from Seneca Lake deep water freshwater shrimp that rise toward the surface at night, and test them for, among other things, mercury levels.

Biologist Dr. Meghan Brown was kind enough to invite us along, joking in an email that freshwater shrimp would not cause as much of a problem for me as the fake freshwater squid I’d created in a story several years ago (reaction to which had included vitriol from a cephalopod expert).

Brown teaches at HWS, serves as the chair of the biology department, and her areas of emphasis include biological limnology. Accompanying Brown were post-doctoral research scientist Dr. Roxanne Razavi, from the Finger Lakes Institute, and HWS honors student Kayleigh Buffington; the expedition served to help Buffington in her studies. Dave Brown piloted The William Scandling with Anthony Madia as the crew member. This was just one of several expeditions Buffington was making for her honors research.

We thought The William Scandling a very impressive ship and found the process of seeking out and gathering shrimp samples to be fascinating. Mostly, we just observed, trying to stay out of the way of Brown, Razavi, and Buffington, who had the process down to a precise set of tasks carried out with well-practiced ease.

First, Dave Brown, with Madia’s help, sent the collection tube or net down over one hundred feet and then brought it up slowly, the mesh and shape of the net designed to specifically gather critters as tiny as the shrimp or smaller, and nothing else. Then Buffington, Brown, and Razavi would collect the gathered water in plastic containers and bring it into the cabin to examine the water and sift through it. The expedition needed to bring back a sample of at least 60 shrimp to test for mercury levels.

As Razavi said in an interview when she joined the Finger Lakes Institute, “The mercury cycle is very complex. Mercury is naturally occurring in the environment, but it is also emitted into the environment from human sources. [Since] there are a lot of gaps on what we know about mercury in the Finger Lakes,” the goal is to uncover the local concentrations of mercury, as “this is a really important region for fisheries, agriculture, and tourism.” (Back in 2014, at a prior job, Razavi was described as a “river detective” uncovering clues about pollution in the St. Lawrence River.)

The net device was sent down again and again, each time coming up with a few shrimp or none, and the tension mounted, something I hadn’t expected. Would the team gather enough shrimp before needing to head back in?! I must say, Ann and I were on the edge of our seats waiting to find out. But, finally, Buffington had her sample and then the ship headed back to shore, stopping only to gather another sample, of invasive mussels.

It was a great night–to have our first extended view of the lake from the water be at night and in the context of getting to watch as Brown, Razavi, and Buffington go expertly through each step–making sure not to contaminate samples–and also getting to talk to them about the ecology of the lake.

Seneca Lake definitely has pollution, due in part to agricultural and wastewater runoff, but Brown told us that, considering everything, the lake continues to function pretty well and be full of life. She also told us about a trip to a lake in Guatemala where their experience with the Finger Lakes was useful in analyzing pollution issues. Brown was kind enough to show us some of the plankton brought up with the shrimp, and to explain the process of carefully documenting the vital statistics of the captured shrimp as well as analysis of the water they were found in.

Along the way, we also learned some fascinating things about earthworm conferences, marmots, and invasive species. In fact, just last year, a grant allowed Dr. Brown to trap and study the bloody red shrimp, an invasive species fairly new to the Finger Lakes District.

Below the cut you can find photos and more information. Some photos in this blog post taken by Roxanne Razavi. Due to the requirement not to use flash so as not to disturb the shrimp, these photos are, of course, somewhat grainy.

img_4006The shrimp capture device had several intricate parts, and when about to be plunged into the lake or right after being brought back up resembled a squid…just a little bit. Here, the researchers are about to take the sample and pour it into separate containers. Razavi noted later that the containers are made of Teflon because “this material has been found to reduce the possibility of Hg contamination, so we have to pay big bucks for our sampling jars and tools!”

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Dr. Brown watches as another researcher enters data into the log. For long portions of the night, none of the usual white light was allowed, since the shrimp are light-sensitive and would flee the net.

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Dr. Razavi from the Finger Lakes Institute was happy about being out on the lake at night and the quantity of shrimp acquired, and in general there was a sense of purpose, fun, and energy that was nice to see.

dscn5045Inside the research cabin, a little humorous verse.

img_4015Once the samples are brought back inside the research cabin, the water is carefully handled to avoid contamination.

img_4023Water poured out into petri dishes is examined for shrimp and other tiny creatures. The shrimp are measured and gathered for later analysis.

dscn5059Success! Shrimp! In the tiny lake of the petri dish.

img_4041Kayleigh Buffington engages in what looked to us like the very difficult task of measuring a tiny shrimp. She’s gone on multiple field trips for her research as an honors student in biology at HWS, including to Guatemala.

dscn5068Ann VanderMeer writes down data from the shrimp harvest, as dictated to her by Buffington. I was later given this same opportunity by Dr. Brown and managed to mess it up. Apparently, being able to write in one area is no guarantee of being able to write things down accurately in another.

dscn5076Dr. Brown showed us some of the microscopic life to be found in Lake Seneca. Under microscope some of it looked cute, some of it looked creepy, and some monstrous. But most of all I was struck, as I have been by books on microbes and the human body, by just what a wealth of life Earth contains at every level and scale.

dscn5075The plankton of Seneca Lake, revealed.

dscn5077Oh dear–there are dozens and dozens of lifeforms in a single drop of water. Some of them made of silicon!

img_4063Kayleigh Buffington at the end of a long night–morale still high aboard The William Scandling as the hunt turned to invasive mussels.