The Little Marine Lab That Could
By Kenneth Mashinchi
From the deepest depths of the ocean to the sky above, researchers from SJSU’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories collaboratively dive into finding resolutions for climate change with hope for a better future.
Since its inception in the 1960s, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) has made waves in the world of marine science. MLML is part of San José State University’s College of Science, and faculty from MLML and other parts of the college tackle climate change in marine systems from a variety of angles and areas, from the West Coast to Antarctica. With less than a dozen faculty members, MLML reels in grants and recognition on par with its larger marine science counterparts — leading to former director Kenneth Coale calling it “the little marine lab that could.”
Now led by Interim Director Ivano Aiello, the lab facilitates collaboration amongst MLML and SJSU’s Main Campus faculty, leading to discoveries that give a sense of hope often lost when talking about climate change.
“The biggest plus of MLML and SJSU is the diversity of backgrounds to tap into,” says Amanda Kahn, ’10 MS Marine Science, assistant professor of invertebrate ecology. “Down my hallway there are oceanographers and organismal biologists and someone who studies penguins, so we can bounce ideas off each other and get a very global or whole-system perspective of how things fit together. At the same time, it is a small place here, so being connected to SJSU is really incredible.”
MLML's interdisciplinary culture, unique location and highly experiential curriculum mean SJSU undergraduate and graduate students engage in research that makes a true impact on the environment.
“SJSU was a dream job for me,” says Maya deVries, assistant professor of biological sciences. “Our student body is enthusiastic and really diverse, and so, being able to train the next generation of scientists who are from such a multicultural background is really exciting for me as someone who is biracial myself.”
The depth of MLML research is vast. Take a glimpse into the world of marine science at SJSU.
Sponges: Winners or losers of climate change?
They are the time capsules of the ocean, remnants of sponges of the past lodged into sediment cores in the Subarctic of the Bering Sea. For Amanda Kahn, they provide a glimpse into what a future of warming climate can mean for sponges.
“Caribbean coral reefs look like the corals are dying away and possibly being replaced by sponges or algae,” says Kahn. “We can’t fast-forward to see what things will look like in the future, so using sediment cores can provide a view of time and tell us whether the sponge abundance and diversity changed during warmer or colder climates.”
A screenshot of the various spicule images that are processed using machine learning to identify which sponge they are from. Photo: Philip Heller.
“I get to do something for the world...Because who knows if we will win or lose, but if you’re doing something about it, you can rest easy at night.”
— Philip Heller
Kahn says sponges are a foundation species because they form the basis of the habitat that a lot of other species make home. There are two specific times in the history of Earth that could reveal if sponges are, as Kahn says, “a winner or loser of climate change”; around 1–2 million years ago, when Earth had ice ages with rapid warming and cooling events, and 40 million years ago, when Earth didn’t have glacial cycles and was warm overall.
The remnants of sponges — called spicules — are found within the sediment cores, and depending on what layer of the sediment it is in, Kahn and MLML Interim Director Ivano Aiello, a geological oceanographer, can determine how long ago the sponge lived.
“Not each spicule is unique to each species, but you can get down to the family or order level and can tell the oxygen isotopes or the magnetic field in those layers to tell what the climate was like at the time,” Kahn says.
Sifting through tons of dirt to find spicules is similar to looking for a needle in a haystack, so Kahn teamed up with Philip Heller, ’08 MS Computer Science, associate professor of computer science, to employ machine learning to identify spicules and the sponges they came from. Heller, who worked as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley for several decades before coming to SJSU, says being able to collaborate with Kahn and other MLML faculty provides the fulfillment he was missing.
“I get to do something for the world. I get to create a sense of safety for myself that balances out the anxiety of climate change,” he says. “Because who knows if we will win or lose, but if you’re doing something about it, you can rest easy at night.”
A former student at MLML, Kahn relishes the opportunity to open the door for undergraduate and graduate students to explore the world of research.
“I try to empower them to see how capable they already are and at the same time open their eyes to how little we collectively know,” Kahn says. “They ask me what to do, and I say, ‘I don’t know,’ and they are shocked. But see, no one has the answers, and it’s exciting and an adventure to figure out the thrill of discovery.”
What happened to all the abalone?
Untangling food webs is Assistant Professor Maya deVries’ specialty. From why abalone appear only on Michelin star-rated restaurant menus to who eats whom in the ocean, deVries’ research seeks to understand what we don’t see under the sea.
Abalone are large sea snails that used to be very common on the West Coast and were a popular food source for early Californians. Largely due to overfishing, abalone are being grown in aquacultures because their wild populations have declined so dramatically. They are also facing a changing ocean due to ocean acidification that can stunt their growth and make their shells brittle. This has caused abalone to go from a popular dish to a delicacy for fine dining.
Abalone shells have become brittle due to acidification, but growing them with seaweed is showing promising results in making them healthier. Photo: Maya deVries.
deVries and graduate student Noah Kolander, ’24 MS Marine Science, are researching whether growing abalone alongside seaweed can reverse the ocean acidification effects and help return them to prominence on the coast.
“Through aquaculture, abalone can blossom again and help restore populations because they are so important to kelp forest food webs,” says deVries. “We explore how we can improve the shell strength and also the muscle properties of abalone. Hopefully that translates to better taste and more attractive food products, but also abalone that can go back into the wild.”
Seaweed helps by absorbing carbon dioxide in the water, which in turn raises the water’s pH level. Higher pH levels means less acidic water, which creates a more favorable environment for the abalone to grow and build strong, beautiful shells. deVries and Kolander are testing whether shells are in fact stronger when grown in the presence of seaweed by using force sensors to crush shells and test their strength. Several other faculty at MLML are also lending a hand in this research.
“If we know more about the inside of the reef, maybe there are mechanisms or adaptations of organisms inside the reef which can teach us about resiliency to ocean acidification in the future.”
— Maya deVries
Speaking of seaweed, coral reefs are at their best when there is little seaweed present, but we don’t fully know what goes on inside the tunnels and crevices of coral reefs that can’t be seen when snorkeling or diving.
“Coral reefs are less than 1% of all habitat on earth but hold 25% of the world’s biodiversity, and we probably only know about 10% of the organisms in a coral reef,” says deVries. “If we know more about the inside of the reef, maybe there are mechanisms or adaptations of organisms inside the reef which can teach us about resiliency to ocean acidification in the future.”
Since coral reefs are threatened, another one of deVries’ graduate students, Anna Rothstein, ’23 MS Ecology and Evolution, pokes holes with GoPro cameras and light sensors to see what is going on inside, a method deVries used herself as a postdoctoral researcher before joining SJSU.
Pictures of the outside of the reef are also taken, and deVries’ undergraduate student researchers take the lead in identifying what species they see. In line with SJSU’s interdisciplinary research focus, Philip Heller, associate professor of computer science, is collaborating with deVries and Rothstein to incorporate machine learning to automate the identification process.
“We believe what's going on inside the reef is contributing to the outside of the reef, and obviously contributing to the whole ecosystem,” deVries says. “I want to know who eats whom, because that influences the entire coral reef, including the top predators that you see on the reef, like sharks or sea turtles.”
(L-R) Noah Kolander, ’24 MS Marine Science, Ryan Hallisey, '23 MS Ecology and Evolution, Anna Rothstein, ’23 MS Ecology and Evolution, Maya deVries, and Philip Heller suited up and ready to dive during a field research trip in Hawaii in January 2023. Photo: Philip Heller.
Can the ocean do more with the help of phytoplankton?
Sarah Smith, ’09 MS Marine Science, is a torch bearer for MLML. A biological oceanographer, Smith studies the relationship between phytoplankton and iron first discovered by former director John Martin, who passed the knowledge down to his successor, Kenneth Coale, who taught Smith while she was a student at MLML.
Most phytoplankton are too small to be seen without a microscope, but they are mighty. They are at the base of the food web, and make up half of global primary productivity — turning sunlight into organic matter — gobbling up carbon dioxide (CO2) and “fixing it,” removing it from the atmosphere and, potentially, cooling our planet.
“All of the food that the rest of life depends on comes from the activity of primary producers,” says Smith. “When these phytoplankton die or are consumed, the carbon they fix in their bodies then ends up potentially being sequestered away from the atmosphere, a one-way ticket for CO2 from the atmosphere to be locked away again in the earth's crust.”
Smith’s main focus is on studying diatoms, a type of phytoplankton that does 20% of all global primary productivity — equivalent to rainforests. When iron is present in the water alongside other nutrients, diatoms are the first to bloom — more diatoms means more sequestering of carbon.
"How can we use what we know to really try and solve this huge issue that's facing humanity?”
— Sarah Smith
Martin and Coale both researched how adding iron to areas of the ocean that are iron deficient simulates a phytoplankton bloom to sequester more carbon dioxide. Smith says continuing this research in an ethically responsible manner is essential, especially because oceans represent the best hope against climate change. Scientists estimate there are around 38,000 gigatons of carbon in the ocean — if the CO2 from the air is added annually, it would be 38,010 gigatons total*.
“Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels entirely, we have enough CO2 in the atmosphere to keep warming, and it's a relatively small amount of carbon that we're asking the ocean to store on top of what it already does,” Smith says. “The question now is: How can we accelerate what we know the ocean is doing anyway? Potentially through deliberate ocean iron fertilization in a very responsible way, considering all of the potential for ecological consequences.
“But with all of that in mind, how can we use what we know to really try and solve this huge issue that's facing humanity?”
Smith says it is exciting to work with students because she was in their shoes not long ago, learning solution-oriented science at MLML with a focus on the future.
“It's rewarding to communicate with them about not just a gloom-and-doom type scenario, and not just ‘Here's the tools to continue to document the decline,’ but to help watch them become hopeful about how what they're learning might translate into actual solutions for the next few decades.”
*Statistics are from the 2022 National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Math report on Ocean Carbon Dioxide Removal.
Have you ever seen a penguin with a Fitbit?
Birgitte McDonald, associate professor of vertebrate ecology at SJSU, and San José State researchers from the MLML braved the -35°F temperatures of Antarctica’s Ross Sea Marine Protected Area for several weeks this winter — which is actually summer in Antarctica — to learn more about the majestic emperor penguins.
The largest penguins on the planet, emperor penguins are vital to understanding climate change. McDonald and her team are monitoring how they live and move, as well as what can be done to better protect them from environmental threats. As ice-dependent predators, they are indicators of both drastic and subtle changes occurring throughout the food web and the state of the sea ice.
“We’re hoping to learn where the emperor penguins are going, how deep they are diving, how hard they have to work to get their food,” says McDonald. “This work will help us understand how the [Ross Sea] Marine Protected Area is functioning and if changes need to be made in order to protect the species here.”
The collaborative field research — funded in part by the National Science Foundation — includes SJSU faculty and student researchers and a team of scientists from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). The five-year program supports the Ross Sea Region Research and Monitoring Programs (Ross-RAMP), designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area in the Antarctic. This oceanic region is the world’s largest protected marine area.
“Penguins, especially these penguins, are sentinels of change. They’re sort of the canaries in the coal mine,” says SJSU postdoctoral researcher Caitlin Kroeger. “When something’s wrong, especially with climate change, things are going to be changing very rapidly in a polar place, and this is the last area for them.”
Researchers fit penguins’ feathers with GPS-based data loggers, similar to human fitness trackers, to record their movement and how they catch food. The loggers can tell researchers how far and how fast a penguin travels, as well as whether it’s walking, swimming or sliding.
Emperor penguins can dive to almost 500 meters and hold their breath for 30 minutes. During dives deeper than 400 meters, a penguin’s heart rate routinely decreases to below 20 beats per minute, and can get as low as eight beats per minute. The emperor penguin dive patterns, population dynamics and feeding behavior provide an indication of the health of the Ross Sea ecosystem at large.
“The penguin data loggers have a pressure sensor and a temperature sensor,“ explains Parker Forman, ’23 MS Marine Science, “so we can do a little bit of habitat modeling, and there’s also an accelerometer on board so we know the positioning of a penguin — whether it was standing, tobogganing or swimming. We’re actually able to count how many strokes the penguin took.”
A story about McDonald’s research with emperor penguins was published in February on the SJSU NewsCenter. To stay up to date on all the latest SJSU news, subscribe to the NewsCenter’s weekly email newsletter.
What can bird eating patterns tell us about the ocean?
If you’ve rooted for the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park, then you’ve seen that the ballpark doesn’t empty right away after a game. Win or lose, Western gulls are circling the seats for an uneaten nacho or hotdog bun. For Scott Shaffer, professor of ecology and evolution in the Department of Biological Sciences at SJSU, the feeding patterns of Western gulls and other birds can provide a lens into the ocean’s health.
Scott Shaffer tracks the movement of birds to understand their eating patterns, which can provide a glimpse into the health of the environment. Photo: Scott Shaffer.
Shaffer grew up in San Diego and was a zookeeper at SeaWorld for several years. He was always drawn to birds, especially albatrosses.
“They're so graceful when they're flying, it doesn't cost them very much energy, and they can fly incredibly fast,” says Shaffer. “They can fly 500 kilometers [310 miles] in a day.”
Aside from Laysan and black-footed albatrosses, Shaffer’s research team — composed of anywhere from one to four undergraduate students and several graduate students — study Western gulls, rhinoceros auklets and common murres. The team visits breeding colonies, places tracking devices on the birds using tape and recaptures the birds after a week. The GPS trackers inform them where the birds have been. Blood samples, body measurements and what the birds regurgitate show what they’ve eaten.
“They know the ocean better than we do,” he says. “One of the ways they can search for food is by flying over large areas while looking for prey that may be scattered randomly across the ocean surface. They key in on gatherings of other birds, marine mammals and tuna, and think, ‘Oh, there's something interesting over there. I'm going to go check it out.’”
Based on whether birds find food more on land or in the ocean, Shaffer says we can infer a lot about the health of our environment.
“The coast of California has some of the most biologically diverse marine life anywhere in the world,” he says. “I look at the seabirds I study as a lens to say, “OK, what's the health of the ocean?’ Can they tell us something about what's potentially gonna happen down the road with climate change?
“When you see observations that give you some signals, then it does give you pause for thinking about what lies ahead in the future.”
“The coast of California has some of the most biologically diverse marine life anywhere in the world.”
— Scott Shaffer