Thursday, December 12, 2013

Have you ever fought with a sibling in the backseat of a car? Ever argued over Legos, Barbies, or who gets the last Oreo? Well your sibling rivalry is nothing compared to those found in nature…

In many groups within the animal kingdom, sibling cannibalism has been observed (Fox 1975). This rather intense form of bickering among brothers and sisters comes in various forms, and can start at a very young age. So young in fact, that the siblings haven’t yet left their mother.

A Crepipatella occulta larva consuming a nurse egg
In utero cannibalism is called adelphophagy, in which one multi-celled embryo consumes another embryo or multiple nurse eggs. In the latter case, the organism is consuming its “potential sibling” (MacKay and Gibson 1999). This form of intrauterine cannibalism may provide certain fitness advantages to the embryos that survive; the nutrients gained allow them to develop larger and healthier, giving them a greater chance of survival after leaving the mother (Collin and Spangler 2012).

This behavior is found across various organisms, from lady bugs to certain sharks (Osawa 2002, Gilmore et al 1983). 
Intrauterine cannibalism has been observed in Sand Tiger Shark 
Of particular interest to me is the adelphophagic development of certain marine gastropods. My work in the Collin lab involves nurse egg development in three species of marine snails, from both Panama and Chile. The variability in these three species’ development shows just how diverse sibling cannibalism can be, even on a very small scale. So while it may seem to be a cruel form of development, it is also an extremely interesting and complex ecological behavior.

And with all that in mind, my brother comes to visit me in Panama tomorrow…

Collin, Rachel, and Abby Spangler. "Impacts of Adelphophagic Development on Variation in Offspring Size, Duration of Development, and Temperature-Mediated Plasticity." The Biological Bulletin 223.3 (2012): 268-77
Fox, L. R. "Cannibalism in Natural Populations." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 6.1 (1975): 87-106.
Gilmore, R. G., J. W. Dodrill, and P. A. Linley. "Reproduction and Embryonic Development of the Sand Tiger Shark, Odontaspis Taurus (Rafineque)." Fishery Bulletin 81.2 (1983): 201-25.
Mackay, Julie, and Glenys Gibson. "The Influence of Nurse Eggs on Variable Larval Development In(Polychaeta: Spionidae)." Invertebrate Reproduction & Development 35.3 (1999): 167-76.
Osawa, Naoya. "Sex-dependent Effects of Sibling Cannibalism on Life History Traits of the Ladybird Beetle Harmonia Axyridis (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae)." Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 76.3 (2002): 349-60.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Great pic of Collin Whitsett (STRI intern)

Well, this is my first blog post and I want to write about last weekend. The three CollinLab interns went to Bocas del Toro, the main reason was to visit Bocas Station, where our Principal Investigator, Rachel Collin, is the Director. Of course, it was our first trip together (without counting field trips at the lab) and we were really excited.

We took the overnight bus to get there, and it takes 10 hours to arrive at Almirante. For me, the trip was really good because I was sleeping the whole time, but I don’t think that it was the same for all the other people.  
After the bus, we had to take a taxi to go to the dock and get a boat to the main island, Colon…Yeah, just getting to Bocas is an adventure.
The first thing we did was visit the Bocas Station, where a nice woman who works there, Vicky, was waiting for us. She showed us all the station, and it was really interesting.  The diving facilities were impressive, and there are many innovative environmental technologies exclusive to this station, particularly ones for climate change research.

The three interns at Bocas Station
Bocas station dock

After our tour, we went down to the beach for a while. The beach (Paki Point) is really quite amazing, and we could finally rest at the lounge there.

On Saturday, despite the rainy weather, we visited Coral Cay, and we went to an area for snorkeling. The boat tied up to a buoy and we snorkeled off the boat. The water wasn’t very clear but I saw a lot of small fish that were very colorful and some species of corals. After this, the boat driver took us to Red Frog Beach. We got off at a dock from which we had to walk about 10 minutes to the beach. It was a great beach -- probably the most beautiful beach I had ever been too -- but I didn´t see any frogs! I spent most of the time in the water, which was very warm and wavy.

Panoramic of Red Frog Beach

We came back to the city on Sunday at noon. The overnight bus was full, so we had to take a bus to David (where my life flashed before my eyes – it is a very crazy ride!) and another one from there to Panama City. Despite the somewhat frightening and hectic, transport I really recommend this trip to everybody!


Friday, November 22, 2013

Moving from snails to worms

After a year and so in the Collin Lab at Panama, I joined every possible project in the lab. And I tried all the possible things you can do in the vicinity of Naos and Cerro Ancon. Introduced extensively by Gina, Ancon was the home for many of the STRI interns and fellows: La Jaula. 

(La Jaula, Apt. H)

Independently of the space, it gather together some of the most remarkable interns and friends of the Collin Lab during my time there: Olaf, Victoria, Gina, Abby, Abrial and Robin. Together we were often found having potlucks and playing guitar.

Meanwhile in the lab, me as Costa Rican, wasn't refer by my first name (Allan), but usually by the name of "El mae" (=dude, in CR). Back there in Naos, I took care of the hundreds of snails and their food.


(Naos, animal and marine algae room)

Mostly based on the Pacific beaches of Veracruz and Venado, I was part of maybe all the sampling trips. Including the Venado marathons through the dry and rainy seasons. As a result of that, my water shoes give me a very distinct tan line. But thankfully, during my time there, I met incredible people and I gained an amazing experience which help me pursue my next step...GRAD SCHOOL. 

Because of Rachel I met my new supervisor, Néva Meyer. So, past July I came to Worcester, Massachusetts and became a PhD student at Clark University. I joined the Meyer Lab, where we work on one of my favorites groups of animals... ANNELIDS. Néva works with neural development on the charismatic marine worm Capitella teleta

(C. teleta and its sibling species live in the intertidal and shallow water mud of the East Coast. Me, Néva and Craig (Néva's husband and also a developmental biologist) went down to Sippewissett salt marsh to collect some mud (=food) for our colony in the lab)

(yeah, of course some Crepidula...)

Using modern molecular techniques, such as in situ hybridization, antibody staining, microinjections plus fluorescent and confocal microscopy, we are trying to understand how the central nervous system develops and how it can be compared among other animals. 

(Ventral view of a stage 9 larvae of C. teleta. Green shows acetylated tubulin (ciliary bands), red shows serotonergic neurons (annelids and molluscs, yeah, slipper snails too!, have a ventral nerve cord)

Meanwhile, I am narrowing down ideas for projects,  trying to get used to the cold of New England and learning a bunch of excited EvoDevo topics as well as more and more molecular techniques. That's for now. Pura vida.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Where are they now? Gina Contolini

Studying moon snails with Allan and Rachel early in 2013 was an amazing experience, and I was sad to leave. 

Me (Gina) at our moon snail field site at Venado Beach in February 2013.

Now, I am doing my own research at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) where I just started as a PhD graduate student in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. 

I work at the Long Marine Lab, the marine division of the department. My advisors are Dr. Mark Carr, a subtidal ecologist, and Dr. Eric Palkovacs, a freshwater evolutionary ecologist. 

A picture of the Long Marine Lab from the Monterey Bay. Picture from the UCSC EEB website.

I don't have a thesis project yet, but I am interested in eco-evolutionary dynamics in marine ecosystems, and especially how humans cause evolution in these systems. I want to know to what degree trait change in marine species causes change in the environment, and how these changes can lead to further evolution. 

Currently, I am considering studying systems in inter- and subtidal ecosystems and fisheries. I hope someday my research informs marine management. I am particularly interested in the sheephead-urchin trophic dynamic in kelp forests in the Channel Islands. 

I am originally from Portland, OR, so my move to central California was not a huge change, but it is certainly much warmer and drier. I love the area, the school, the department, and all the other students I've met so far. There are a million outdoor things to do in Santa Cruz, and there is always something fun to do to keep me busy. Below are some pictures of my experiences here!

Me testing the stinging cells of a sea anenome by licking it. They worked. 

A hollowed out tree in Big Sur.

View of the Big Sur coastline.

Tidepools behind the Long Marine Lab.

For more information about what I'm up to, visit my website!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Panama's Diversity

Greetings from the Collin Lab! I am posting for the first time during my four month internship to share my recent ecological experiences. Both in and out of the lab, I have been astounded by the diversity of Panama. Flipping over a single rock in the intertidal zone reveals not only multiple species, but multiple classes and phyla. Brittle stars scurry across sponges and barnacles, hoping to hide again in the sediment, as snails pull themselves tightly against the rock. These organisms survive daily and annually fluctuating environmental conditions so drastic that my complaints for air conditioning after an hour in the field seem laughable. Our field site at Veracruz is just minutes from the Naos laboratory, but every trip there brings me new appreciation for the term “tropical biodiversity.”

This kind of diversity is paralleled in Panama’s landscape. In the past week, I had the opportunity to scuba dive a Caribbean coral reef, hike through a rainforest, scramble over rocks at STRI’s own Punta Culebra, and even explore the cultural landscape of Casco Viejo, all within about an hour’s drive.  

I was introduced to animals I didn’t even know existed, like capybaras and coati. Capybaras, or “water pigs”, spend their days in the water and come out at night to graze. It was on a night hike of the rainforest that I caught a glimpse of a family of capybaras, and I couldn’t help but think of Rodents Of Unusual Size (a disturbing creature from the book/movie The Princess Bride).

I am really enjoying the experiences that this diversity brings to my daily life. One morning I woke to the sound of distant howler monkeys, and the next to 5 am fireworks celebrating Panama’s independence from Colombia (las Fiestas Patrias). Likewise, I have a special fondness for tropical birds, and was ecstatic to catch a glimpse of a toucan on a run up Ancon hill behind the STRI dorms. Panama’s diversity is present in so many ways, and I’m looking forward to the adventures to come! 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Congratulations Abby!

Yesterday, Abby Spangler successfully defended her undergraduate honor's thesis "When, where, and why:  Oviposition site preference and reproductive seasonality in Nerita scabricosta" at Florida State University.  Congratulations Abby!

Check out this video about Abby's research to find out more.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


This weekend, Abrial and I paid a visit to the Miraflores Locks, one of the first truly touristy things either of us have done since arriving in Panama. Our STRI IDs allow us resident admission rates—$3 as opposed to $8 for non-nationals—granting us full access to the museum, theatre, and viewing decks housed in the 5-story monolith alongside the locks themselves.

I am not often impressed by feats of human engineering, much though I respect the design, effort, and power directed toward such projects. (Nature’s engineering, on the other hand…) The Panama Canal locks, with their 650-tonne gates, draw even my reluctant awe, as do the massive cargo ships which traverse the Canal. There are mere inches between the holds of these metal behemoths and the concrete walls of the locks.




Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tid bits and how to's at the Collin Lab

Welcome to the Collin Lab! For any new lab members, there are a few things you should know before you get here.

First, what to pack! 
  • Lab attire consists of long pants and close toed shoes at all times, so be aware. Also, the air conditioning at Naos is FREEZING so bring a sweatshirt or two. 
  • If you plan on going to the field, bring a long sleeved shirt (because the sun is very strong this close to the equator), athletic type shorts (with pockets is best) and a hat is a must! Sunglasses are also not a bad idea because the water can create quite a glare. If you have water shoes, they would be helpful for the intertidal zone, but the lab has many in all different sizes, so don't worry if you don't have a pair laying around. 
  • It rains almost every day during the rainy season (April through December) so bring an umbrella or a raincoat if you don't want to get wet. The temperature is always around 90º F or 32º C. For everything else, bring normal clothes, nothing too fancy is really needed, although it is fun to dress up a little to go out to Casco Viejo, or downtown every once in a while. 
  • Another point: if you are living at La Jaula, the STRI Ancon apartments, the laundry machines take only quarters. .75 to wash and 1.00 to dry, so it's probably a good idea to bring some quarters with you! I always have to scramble to scrounge up quarters at the last minute, and often go longer that I should without doing laundry. 

Once you are here, the most important thing is FOOD. There are many grocery stores around.
  • The easiest to get to from Ancon (La Jaula) is probably the Super 99 at Albrook Mall/the Terminal. To get there you can take a bus, which someone will have to help you use the first time, because you need to buy an orange bus pass at the Terminal to use the bus. The pass costs 2.50 and each ride is 25 cents. If you don't have a bus card, you can catch a taxi, which is more expensive (between 1 and 2 dollars to get from Ancon to Albrook). To catch a bus back to Ancon, you should ask the driver if they go through Cinco de Mayo. Most busses pass that way. Ones with destinations like 'Via Espana,' and 'Transistmica' are usually a safe bet. 
  • There is a fresh fruit and veg market a few blocks away from La Jaula, at the same place as the bus stop. Nothing can beat fresh produce at good prices!
  • Other grocery stores: one within walking distance along Avenida Central, and one each at Multicentro and Multiplaza, both malls a bus ride away. 
  • LUNCH at Naos is either pack your own, or buy from a taxi that brings rice and beans with some meat right outside for $2. Also there are a few cheap restaurants close by, and also a few really expensive touristy restaurants. There is also a minimart type store on the next island down if things are desperate. And a vending machine at Naos. 

Getting to Naos! Also important. 
  • A busito (small bus/van) runs from Tupper, the main STRI building in Ancon, to Naos every weekday. It leaves Tupper at 7am (although it used to leave at 6:45, and before that, 7:15, and people can be found waiting for the bus 15-30 minutes before it leaves), and gets to Naos about half an hour later after navigating the crazy Panama traffic. In the afternoons, the busito leaves Naos at 4pm (but again, people being lining up at 3:30, and the bus gets ridiculously full - it's a 15 person van, but most days holds at least 19, and up to 22). I have also heard that if goes to Naos from Tupper on Saturdays at 9am, though I can't verify this. 
  • There are one dollar taxis from Cinco de Mayo to Amador (the causeway that connects Naos and the other islands to the mainland). You find them underneath the highway just past the square at Cinco de Mayo, and the drivers will be calling out 'Amador.' They fill up the taxi, then drop everyone off at Amador. Let them know you want to get off at Naos though, otherwise they will go right past it. 
  • You can also take a taxi from anywhere in the city, though these will be much more expensive. Tell the driver either Amador or the causeway, and then tell them to stop once you reach Naos, the first island. 
  • It's also relatively easy to bike or walk from Ancon to Naos. Walking takes about an hour and a half, and biking takes maybe 30 minutes. Be careful of cars, especially if biking, because they drive like maniacs. A map of the best route is below. 

Everything else will be easy enough to figure out after a few days! Everyone at the lab is always willing to help out, and answer any questions you have. 

View Larger Map

Monday, July 15, 2013

Collecting Blue Crabs In Louisiana

Collecting Blue Crabs in Louisiana
By Matt Starr 2013


Since I've moved to Louisiana I haven't had a lot of time in the field.  Back in Panama, the lab would be out collecting snails at least once every few months but now if I need specimens I just order them and have them sent in the mail!  Last month, however, I was able to get back in the field and help new Neigel Lab doctoral student, Tim Sullivan, collecting blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus).


We were hoping to catch the crabs at a juvenile and adult stage. To catch them we used a combination of traps, hoop nets, and hand lines. The hoop nets were the best because you bait them with raw chicken and then all you do is wait for the crabs to come to you.


...and voilà!      Crabs in a bucket.


We were also hoping to collect the crabs at the megalopae stage.  The megalopae stage is a planktonic stage of the crab so they are still out swimming in the channel.  To catch them we set out traps made from a PVC pipe wrapped in a plastic air filter. The idea is that if a megalopae comes in contact with the filter it will think it is a great place to hide and grow so it will grab on to the filter. After the traps have been set for a few hours we lift them out and rinse them with fresh water to collect each megalopae.

Unfortunately we did not catch any megalopae this time...

After catching the crabs we measured them, politely took off one walking leg, and then placed the walking leg in alcohol.  Once we get back to the lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Tim will extract the DNA for each crab we caught.

Measure....                                   Remove one walking leg....          Preserve the leg in alcohol

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On trucks

I’ve known how to drive since well before I was technically of a legal age to do so, something not uncommon in the ranch community of eastern Montana where I was raised. I learned to drive in my family’s ’94 Ford pickup, a finicky beast which doesn’t like to change gears and doesn’t turn particularly well. But it does have an automatic transmission.

I had never driven a manual transmission before. I always meant to. I just never got around to it. So, when Dr Collin asked, as an afterthought to a previous e-mail conversation, whether I could drive a stick-shift, my immediate response was “No... but I can learn!”

For the three weeks I had at home before coming to Panamá, I borrowed a friend’s ancient manual transmission truck so I could learn to drive. This car is a stereotypical farm truck: beat up, rusty, mud-encrusted, with a broken window repaired with plywood and a bit of twine, and so much dirt in the back you could plant a garden. The gearshift is finicky and changing gears involves twisting, shoving, and generally manhandling the stick into place.

I learned to drive it though. Sure, I killed the engine a few times (actually, a lot of times) and I never drove very fast, especially as the car wouldn’t go over 57 m.p.h. without the engine sounding like it was going to explode. But I was on country roads where “traffic” is two cars passing, and three cars is a veritable traffic jam. My slow driving didn’t bother anyone.

Fast forward to last Wednesday. It’s a field day, so one of the lab members has to drive an STRI truck to Playa Veracruz. Allan is usually the driver, but it’s Allan’s last week and I’m the only other available person authorized to drive STRI vehicles, though the paperwork was only approved yesterday.

I’m nervous. I’m not particularly looking forward to driving in a city where the drivers are excessively, in my eyes, aggressive as they are here. I am even less comfortable when I have to drive a stick-shift through three different construction zones, onto a freeway, across a huge cantilever bridge, and through an obstacle course of hills and blind curves at 75 k.p.h. This is actually considered easy driving in Panama, as the road to Veracruz never really enters the city and the traffic is generally light.  To make things worse, I pick up the keys and head out to the lot only to find the truck we usually use is not the truck to which I was given the keys. Instead, we have the refrigerator truck:
You will note the large aluminum box in the back of the truck.

This means I have no rearview mirror.  (Dr. Collin notes that driving this monster is some kind of rite of passage at STRI, she herself had to drive a similar truck across the country...white knuckles all the way.... 15 years ago when she was a short-term fellow).

I quickly discover that this pickup, unlike the stick-shift I learned to drive in, shifts gears very easily. Too easily in fact. I can’t tell if I’ve shifted into 1st or 3rd and kill the engine reversing out of the parking space. Twice.

I’m holding the wheel with a death grip as I turn out of the parking lot onto the Causeway. All goes well and we make it to the field safely.  

The return trip was somewhat less stressful. I only killed the engine once at a stop sign, garnering yet more angry horns from the drivers tailgating me. We make it back to our island haven laboratory safe and not much the worse for wear. I am exceedingly thankful.

Now I just have to repeat this procedure every two days for the remainder of the summer…

Monday, July 1, 2013

Introductions and Goodbyes

It seems the blog hasn't been updated in a while. Gina was highly motivated to post updates, but Gina left in March. It is now June and we have several new faces in the lab, myself included. I suppose an introduction is in order. I'm Robin Alexis, the newest intern at the Collin Lab, although I arrived in Panamá nearly three weeks ago. 
The lab line-up has changed quite a bit since the last posts. Of course Dr Collin is still here, and our wonderful lab manager, Isis Ochoa. When I arrived, we had five interns in the lab. As of Friday, that number is reduced to four. Longtime intern Allan Carrillo left on Sunday to return briefly to Costa Rica before moving on to pursue a master's degree. Still remaining are Abraham Osario; Abby Spangler; Abrial Meyer, who also goes by Abby (to make things even more confusing, the two Abbys are roommates); and myself.
That's the current state of the lab, and that's all I have for now.

Top row, left to right:  Rachel, Allen, Abrial, Sebastien
Bottom row:  Abraham, Abby, Robin and Isis.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Natica what?

Below are photos of the moon snails we study in Veracruz, Panama. Their shells tend to be quite variable and are sometimes hard to use to determine species. The family is Naticidae, and right now I think the genus is Natica, but it could  be Polinices... well, have a look for yourself! 

View of the operculum, funicle, and umbilicus. Is the operculum calcareous?

Some physical characteristics used for diagnosis include:

Figures from Poutiers' Gastropods.

Aperture - principle opening.
Callus - thick secondary deposit of lime, generally shiny and porcellaneous.
Columella - coiling axis of shell, forming the anterior part of inner lip.
Funicle - a ridge of callus spiraling into the umbilicus in the naticids.
Operculum - horny or calcareous part attached to the foot; it seals the aperture when the animal withdraws
into the shell.
Umbilicus - opening at base of shell made around the coiling axis when columella is hollow.

Example Natica shell from Bulletins of American Paleontology compared with our shell.

1. Keen, Myra A. 1958. Sea Shells of Tropical West America. Stanford University Press, Standford, California. 
2. Poutiers, J.M. Gastropods.
3. Bulletins of American paleontology. Ithaca, N.Y.,Paleontological Research Institution. 
v.70, no.292-294 (1976-1977):
Page(s): Plate 36, Page 475, Expl. of Plate 36