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A Wild Volvox at Peterson Bay Field Statio

Seldom does a day pass when I fail to learn something new from the guests on my tour. Today, a pair of freshwater ecologists from Chicago taught me about the life of Lost and Found Lake.

 
A dragonfly's-eye view of Lost and Found Lake.
 
Our dragonflies live four to five years as nymphs, chomping on mosquito larvae and overwintering in lake-bottom muck. They molt from nine to twelve times before finally emerging as royal-blue, winged adults. They fly for one summer before dying in the frosts of fall.
 
Damselflies go through a similar process but spend only two to three years as nymphs, a stage in which they have three tails and long, wriggly body. We found dragonfly and damselfly nymphs when I scooped lake water into my frisbee. (Just one more reason why you should never leave home without one!)
 
But the most incredible discovery of all came from the ecologists' daughter who scooped a firm, transparent goo blob from the lake. I'm used to unidentified blobs in the intertidal zone, but in freshwater I was out of my element.
 
Frog eggs? Nope, we have only one amphibian in Alaska (the wood frog, Lithobates sylvaticus) and its eggs look more like clear grapes with a black dot in the middle.
 
Snail eggs? Perhaps, though I've never seen a snail in this lake.
 
Then I looked closer. Thousands of tiny green dots were aligned within the blob, perfectly ordered like soldiers on the march. At the edges of the blob, where upper and lower surfaces overlapped, the dots gave a mossy sheen to the blob.
 
Could it be... Volvox? The spherical, chlorophytic protist from introductory bio lab?
 
The ecologists and I leaned in. "Look, it has five gas bubbles trapped inside!" one exclaimed. "I think it's respiring!" Oxygen building up inside was the final clue, and the blob was proclaimed to be Volvox.
 
A wild Volvox!
 
I sacrificed my water bottle for our new friend's transport. Back at the field station, we peered through a microscope to see the tiny green dots up close. They didn't look round, but rather like commas, and they jiggled like worms trapped in a force field.
 

 
Volvox is an important tool for biology education because it displays both sexual and asexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction is cooler: miniature, spherical daughter colonies form within the parent blob and are released into the world.
 
Scientists think Volvox switched from a single-celled organism to a communal enterprise about 200 million years ago, and research into that transition is providing clues about how the evolution of cooperation allowed our single-celled ancestors to become the plants and animals of modern times.
 
It always startles me to see laboratory species in the wild. The same thing happened with slime mold. In high school, I made mazes for slime mold using oats and Petri dishes, then filmed its decision-making with a time-lapse camera. Slime mold was recently featured inNature for redefining intelligence! Now, on my daily hikes, I notice slime mold inching around the rotting logs of its home, the coastal temperate rainforest.
 
A banana-yellow slime mold seeks shade in the forest of Peterson Bay Field Station.
 
Watching slime mold and Volvox do their thing in the wild reminds me of the importance of intact ecosystems. Without old-growth rainforests and healthy lakes, scientists would never have encountered these model organisms that have led to dozens of laboratory-based discoveries and a better understanding of topics ranging from memory to cellular reproduction to our own evolution. 
 
Imagine how many more organisms are out there in unexplored regions of the Amazon, the Arctic, or the deep sea. Who knows what strange life form is going about its daily business of eating, competing, and reproducing, just waiting to be discovered next?
 
-Nina Finley

Across Kachemak Bay

Four days ago, I was fighting for a national championship with my ultimate team, the Whitman Sweets, at the National College Ultimate Championships in Raleigh, North Carolina. (We made school history and earned a silver medal!)

 

Three days ago, I was buying my first pair of Chacos in Seattle and stuffing polypropylene leggings into my waterproof duffel bag.

 

Two days ago, I was flying to Anchorage and then Homer, Alaska and settling in to my bunk room on the second floor of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. I met an old friend and teammate for dinner (here in Homer, what wonderful coincidence) and fell asleep at 10:30 pm in broad daylight.

 

One day ago, I took a boat across Kachemak Bay to the Peterson Bay Field Station, a semi-remote campus of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies where I'll be living and guiding for the rest of the summer.

 

We passed Gull Island on our way to Peterson Bay Field Station.
Common murres were conspicuously absent in the water... and then we found them all huddled on top!
Black kittiwakes coated the cliffs and generated a constant pulsing wail.
Tufted puffins bobbed near our boat.

 

And this morning, I woke up to gossip of boreal chickadees, the indignant peels of black oystercatchers, and the melody of robins.

 

A bald eagle perches in this snag every day.

 

A group of eight Alaskan school-teachers are visiting for a three-day Teacher Academy. They'll take back what they learn to provide outdoor education for the students in their classrooms. It's a perfect first group for me because I get to learn about this ecosystem alongside curious educators who ask creative questions and find joy in the mucky details.

 

Otter Rock: can you see the geological sea otter on her back, paws in the air?
Low tide.
Can you identify this dead duck head?
Our steep ramp from the dock to the Field Station.
If you're heading to the beach, take the stairs.
Our drinking water comes thrice-filtered from this steam, but it's still imbued with a rich brown color from leaf tannins.

 

Today we have a minus 3.2 tide at 7:30 am -- that's really low. We're off to Otter Rock to seek out the Fab Four Phyla and whatever else crosses our path!

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