Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Renewed Sense of Porpoise - An Interview with Jonathan Stern

by Claire Watry, Terra Linda HS
Harbor porpoises have returned to the San Francisco Bay after a 65-year absence. What does their return mean for the other animals of the bay? Why did they leave? Why might they have returned? This week's Marin Science Seminar speaker Jonathan Stern will address these questions and provide insight into the world of local harbor porpoises. The video below is a tribute to the harbor porpoise's return to the bay by the National Wildlife Federation California.

Fast Fasts about the Harbor Porpoise from the National Geographic Society:

Terra Linda High School graduate Jonathan Stern is a lecturer and adjunct professor in the Biology Department at San Francisco State University. He has studied minke whales since 1980 and currently serves as a Co-Principal Investigator at Golden Gate Cetacean Research, where he studies harbor porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, and minke whales locally in the San Francisco Bay. He has also studied an assortment of whales including gray whales, killerwhales, fin whales, humpback whales, and pilot whales. He was the first volunteer at the Marine Mammal Center when it opened in 1975.

How did you decide to study marine life?

My father was a ship captain, who traveled all over the world. When he would come home, he would bring me seashells from the places he traveled. I also watched Sea Hunt and Jacques Cousteau when I was a child and was fascinated by the sea.
From left: Lloyd Bridges stars in Sea Hunt, Seashell collection, Explorer Jacque Cousteau
How do you conduct your research?
This varies depending on what specifically I am studying. I do my observations from the shore and a boat. I also spend a considerable amount of time doing data analysis. I sit with my computer and books about statistical analysis and modeling.

Harbor Porpoise sighting near the Golden Gate Bridge

What is the most difficult aspect of your work?
My works is not difficult; it is challenging physically (being out on the water in a small boat on the open ocean takes its toll over the years) and the data analysis and the writing of papers take time to get things right. The challenge is fun!

What is one of the most surprising or exciting thing you have discovered about porpoises?
We have seen porpoises mating. This sounds like it is not a big deal, but given that these porpoises are among the most commonly seen marine mammal, we are the first to see them mating. The real surprise though is that we can do most of our observations from the Golden Gate Bridge.

What advice do you have for aspiring young scientists?
Prepare yourself! Prepare yourself by taking as many math and science classes as possible. Prepare yourself by learning to keep your focus, but keep your eye on other branches of science. Prepare yourself by learning to ask questions. that is the most important part of science, asking questions. Do not be afraid of the challenge. Prepare to study, work, and have fun. Science is a process.

Report your porpoise sightings! Golden Gate Cetacean Research's page for Porpoise, Dolphins & Whale sightings in SF Bay & the NorCal coast.

To learn more about the return of the harbor porpoise and its ecological implications, attend the Marin Science Seminar presentation San Francisco Bay Has a Renewed Sense of Porpoise" with Jonathan Stern Ph.D. of San Francisco State University, January 29, 2014, 7:30 – 8:30 pm, Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207. See the flyer here

Want more information? Check out the websites below.
National Wildlife Federation California 
Golden Gate Cetacean Research
National Geographic
SF Gate Article

~Claire Watry

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Fascination Behind Ants

by Claire Watry, Terra Linda HS

Did you know that ants are capable of carrying 50 times their body weight in their mouth? Or that ants are the original farmers? Or even that the total biomass of all of the ants on the planet is roughly equivalent to the biomass of all of the people on Earth? These are three of the many reasons why ants are so fascinating. The small insect that most of us view a pest is actually a intriguing specimen and worth the time and effort to research. 

Marin Science Seminar returns in 2014 with a presentation titled "Ants: The Invisible Majority" with Dr. Brian Fisher. Dr. Fisher is a modern day explorer who journeys through remote tropic areas in search of ants. His research utilizes ants as a tool to discover and preserve plant and animal diversity in these places. Dr. Fisher has discovered over 1000 new species of ants including the jumping ants and Dracula ants. He has appeared in a number of BBC, Discover Channel, and National Geographic films and has been profiled in Newsweek and Discover magazine. When he is not working in the field with ants, Dr. Fisher lives in a tree house with the banana slugs. He is currently Chairman of Entomology at the California Academy of Sciences and adjunct professor of biology at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. In the video below, Dr. Fisher details why he believes ants are so cool.


The following interview shows his experiences with ants and his passion for his research.

How did you decide to become entomologist? 

I actually thought I was going to be a botanist, but after a trip to Panama as a sophomore at the University of Iowa, I was struck by the ants’ diversity, abundance, and ecological role. Its not just their diversity that is fascinating. After all beetles are diverse - there are 40,000 leaf beetles - but they all just eat leaves. Ants, on the other hand, have evolved  the most diverse and surprising ways of making a living from growing fungus to tending to aphids. Also, because ants are social, there is a whole other dimension that is fascinating that is not even possible with solitary insects. After working on plants a bit that year in Panama and I dropped the "pl" and just worked on "ants".

Why did you choose to study ants specifically?

I remember I changed the day I discovered an orchid in the canopy in Panama.  This orchid had a specialized home for ants to live and produced nectar for the ants to eat. This was the first orchid to have such a relationship with ants. After researching the ants on this orchid, and learning how their trash pile in the orchid bulb helped feed the orchid, I was hooked on ants.  

Where has your research taken you?

I have worked mostly in the tropics, especially South America, Africa, and Madagascar.  Ants are much more diverse in the tropics. Antarctica, the only continent named after ants, actually doesn't have any ants.  

Dr. Fisher collecting ants in Madagascar. 

What is the most difficult aspect of your work? 

To be a field-based explorer and a scientist requires you to juggle a lot - from fund raising and government permits to extreme field conditions to sitting endlessly looking through a microscope.  

What is one of the most surprising or exciting thing you have discovered about ants? 

In Madagascar, I have discovered over 800 new species of ants, including Dracula ants. These "primitive" ants feed off the blood of their own larvae. Why are we so interested in discovering life on Mars when right here on Earth, we know so little. We are also probably the last generation that will have a chance to explore much of this diversity before it goes extinct.  

Dracula Ant
Dr. Fisher's Ant Collection

What information can people learn from ants?

Ants are social and, like humans, face many of the same problems such as communication, group problem solving, food transfer etc. By studying ants, we are learning how ants, after 150 million years of evolution, have solved these shared problems.  Some of these studies on group intelligence and neural networks are already making an impact in the field of artificial intelligence.  

How do people react when you tell them about your work?

After I give a lecture, where I detail the wonder of the secret lives of ants, the first question I get is always, "How can I kill the ants in my kitchen?" My response?  I tell them to leave some cookie crumbs on the counter and watch the ants. It is a rare treat to watch these wonders right in your own home.     

Be sure to check out the rest of the 10 Fascinating Facts About Ants here

Still not convinced that ants are fascinating? For countless reasons why, come to the Marin Science Seminar presentation Ants: The Invisible Majority" with Dr. Brian Fisher Ph.D. of the California Academy of Sciences, January 22, 2014, 7:30 – 8:30 pm, Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207

See the flyer here

For more information, videos, and pictures about Dr. Fisher check out his page on the California Academy of Sciences website or his ant web site. 

~Claire Watry

Image credits:

Video credits:

"Transportation Research Panel" - An Interview with En-Ya Zhang from the MSEL Transportation Team

by Shoshana Harlem, Terra Linda High School En-Ya Zhang is a Sophomore at Terra Linda High School. She is part of MSEL's Transportati...

About Us

Marin Science Seminar is a one-hour science lecture/presentation with a question and answer period open to all interested local teenagers, educators and community. Seminar sessions are held 12 Wednesday evenings during the school year, from 7:30 to 8:30 pm in room 207 at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way, San Rafael. Seminar speakers are scientists, mathematicians, engineers, physicians, technologists and computer programmers. The topics presented are in a specific area of the speaker’s expertise, geared to interested high school students.