I’m going to be a little anachronistic for this next post, because I’m waiting on GPS coordinates to make a pretty map for my last couple of days in Willapa. So fast forward to the evening of June 29….
After a beautiful 3 hour drive along the Olympic peninsula, I arrived late at the house of my advisor Cathy Pfister and her husband Tim Wootton, another ecologist and faculty at UChicago. For most of the year they live in Chicago, but during the summer stay out in Seiku, WA so that they are much closer to their primary field site, Tatoosh Island.
A tiny seaside community of 27 year-round residents, where cell service was negligible and kids were more likely to be running around outside than sitting in front of a TV, Seiku had the feeling of quintessential Small Town America without all the commercial trappings. Being a 5 minute walk from the Pacific wasn’t too bad either. My purpose for this visit was not particularly oyster related, but instead to catch up with Cathy and explore some of her field sites around the area to see if a particular organism, ecosystem, or potential research question tickled my fancy. While oysters are certainly my species du jour, it’s a good idea at this stage of my PhD to keep an open mind. Choosing a thesis project requires discovering a relatively unfilled niche so that other researchers aren’t scooping your findings and publishing them before you, making all the hard work seem for naught!
The next morning, Cathy drew me out directions to Slip Point, a rocky intertidal habitat a few miles away.
Armed with pH and dissolved oxygen sensors, a waterproof notebook, and a rain bib I spent a few hours poking around in tide pools and climbing over slippery rocks. Having previously lived in Texas and Florida, I had never actually seen a Pacific Northwest rocky intertidal habitat in person before. Similar to those I was familiar with on the east coast, there was a very visible gradient in different species leading away from the water. This follows the gradient of stresses an inhabiting organism might be subjected to, from being constantly submerged by water in the subtidal zone to experiencing huge, daily fluctuations in salinity, temperature, and desiccation in the upper intertidal. Tide pools dotting the shore offer respite from drying out, but even adjacent tide pools can vary drastically in species composition and environmental factors.
What struck me the most was the diversity of seaweeds covering the rocks (struck being the operative word as I slipped and fell on my ass because of them quite a few times).
While I may know more at this point about oysters than my adviser, she is much more familiar with the ecology of kelp in the PNW than me. I can’t even tell my reds from my greens! Despite that I was intrigued about the possibility of local adaptation in these sessile species, for in many ways oysters are similar to some plants in the way they produce large numbers of offspring and release them into the water/air with a small chance of finding suitable habitat to settle. Another PhD student in my lab, Courtney Stepien, is doing a lot of work in this area and I resolved to talk to her more about her research once I returned to Chicago.