Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Congratulations Matt Starr!

Matt Starr (center) with co-advisors Dr. Joe Neigel and Dr. Rachel Collin

Thursday October 30th, 2014.  Matt Starr successfully defended his mater's thesis:  Intraspecific variation and tests for positive selection on genes encoding heat shock proteins in the marine slipper snail, Crepidula fornicata

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Collecting slipper limpets in Coquimbo, Chile

Collecting Snails in Chile

In June 2014 Rachel and I flew down to the Universidad Católica del Norte in Coquimbo, Chile. We met up with Marcel Velasquez, a Collin lab veteran currently at the university. As usual, we were there in search of some calyptraeids.

We had three targets: Crepipatella dilatata, Crepidula coquimbensis, and Crucibulum quiriquinae

Crepipatella dilatata and Crepidula coquimbensis were "easy" to get because they are found just off the dock and able to be collected with only snorkel gear.  But the water was COLD! So before we went swimming we needed wetsuits.

Crepidula coquimbensis lives inside hermit crabs. In order to find them, you dive down at least 10 ft and swim above the sand until you see a hermit crab running away from you. When the hermit crab pulls itself into the shell you can sometimes find a few white shells, Crepidula coquimbensis! Only the biggest females have eggs.

We also were after Crucibulum quiriquinae. These snails are easily found on the shells of Turritella cingulata but at greater depth so we hired a scuba diver to collect for us. T. cingulata were very abundant and our diver collected bags and bags of individuals. Up on the boat, Rachel and I picked through each of them in order to find the C. quiriquinae.

                                                                                     C. quiriquinae (highlighted) sitting on top
                                                                                      of a T. cingulata shell

Back in the lab we checked each of the big females for eggs!


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Snails Build Homes

            Do many animals build homes?  Mollusks do. And snails are a type of mollusk that make homes for themselves and for other animals, too. They make hard, mineralized shells out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3).

At one of our field sites there is almost a carpet of shells
How much calcium carbonate do they produce? One team of biologists (Gutierrez et al., 2003) studies this idea that mollusks shells create habitats for other animals. They calculated how much they produce and found that marine mollusks may produce 50-1000 grams CaCO3/meter/year.  Let's put that in context.  If you compare the calcium carbonate production of mollusks to the wood production of trees, they that “…persistent structure is produced by mollusks at rates comparable to trees”!

It’s easy to see the construction of habitats in action. Snail shells can be found on most beaches. Sometimes they contain the living snail. You might see their bodies in their shells, or you might see them crawling around. Other times, the snail has died and the shell is empty. If it’s intact, an empty shell can become a home to other small animals. 

Some slipper limpets living inside this moonsnail shell

Hermit crabs are a type of crab that occupies empty shells for homes, “moving in” when they need a home (see how to get hermit crabs out of the shell). Other snails can occupy vacant shells, too.  Small sponges and worms often burrow into the shell material.  Some fishes even use clam shells and oyster shells as nests for their eggs.

So, the next time you see a shell, imagine all the little animals that may have lived in it. Hooray for snails: they build homes and create communities!

by Nina Dropcho,
Collin Lab, past STRI intern

Friday, May 23, 2014

CollinLab celebrated The Biodiversity day in Punta Culebra!

Yesterday, May 22nd Collin Lab was invited to the celebration of The Biodiversity Day at Punta Culebra.

We celebrated with 197 children from three different schools from Panama city. The purpose was to show some scientific projects that STRI scientists have developed on different islands in the country. There were three stands representing: The Bocas del Toro Research Station, Barro Colorado Island and the Naos-Culebra Laboratories.

Shirley, Nerea and Isis, CollinLab members before the students arrive.
CollinLab demonstrated the project at Punta Culebra with Nerita snails. We explained to the children how we monitor reproduction, salinity and temperature at Punta Culebra.

While we were explaining the project...
It was a really good day, we shared our research with the students and met some future scientists!

Some of the prospective scientists using a refractometer to check the salinity

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Using Model Species to Study Reproduction and Development in a Marine Lab

Because we study development in our lab, there is a lot of reproduction going on here! Currently, we are caring for hundreds of sea snails, carefully monitoring them for new babies.
The snail farm.  Crepidula snails hanging out while
they wait for new water to be added to their cups.
In biology, we like to use "model organisms" in our studies. Model organisms are those species that have several good qualifications for study. Naturally, our lab prefers to study animals whose reproduction can be monitored. We also like to study animals whose eggs and larvae can be maintained in the lab.

Crepidula marginalis fit my needs for my biology experiment! They are a marine snail that live in the rocky intertidal zone. And one place we can find them is a beach close to our lab, in the Veracruz area of Panama.

Crepidula are easy to collect, easy to maintain in a lab, and their reproduction can be monitored.

A female with eggs

As you can see from the photo, male snails will "climb aboard" a female snail. If the female chooses to mate, and to fertilize her eggs, then her egg "brood" will be visible through the sides of the clear cups. We use clear cups in our labs, which become the snail's new habitat, or home, while we study them.

When the eggs have developed, the brood sac will open and hundreds of veliger larvae will be released from their mama's care. For their first few days of life, they swim freely and quickly! Within a few days, their swimming slows down as their shell gets larger and heavier.

Upon hatching, we try to distribute the new larvae into new bowls with fresh, filtered sea water and algae to eat.

Of the many things I have learned under Dr. Collin's mentorship, I have learned how to choose an organism that suits your experimental needs. And for my thermal tolerance study, the Crepidula marginalis have been a good model organism for these reasons:

* They have been easy to collect in the field,
* They survive and reproduce in the lab,
* Their reproduction can be monitored, and
* Their larvae survive in the lab while we are studying them.

Nina Dropcho, Intern, Collin LabSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Stories from Panama: Of high peaks and deep potholes

As time in Panama is flying and there still is tons of places we haven't seen here, we decided to leave the capital for a weekend to get some fresh mountain air. Our destination was Boquete, a small but fairly touristy town on the foot of Panama's highest peak, Vulcán Barú.

 The plan was following:
We (three interns and one Ph.D.-student, all working at Naos Laboratories) would rent a cheap car, start heading towards the mountains right after work on a friday afternoon and then arrive in Boquete late at night. We would have all saturday and the first half of sunday before getting back in the car and driving back to Panama city.

So Friday comes up and things start a little different than expected. For some reason our reserved car isn't waiting for us, so we have to deal with the whole process of getting a vehicle all over again. And things like that can be very, very slow in Panama. But we get it all fixed and finally end up with a cute, tiny Kia Picanto waiting for us.
That's the first mistake we make. But you always know it better afterwards....

At 4pm we are all ready to leave and start driving. The mood is great and everyone is excited for a weekend full of new experiences, delicious food and a lot of fun.
Then, after driving for quite some time, the Picanto suddenly hits a pothole. Not the biggest surprise on a panamanian road, but we probably choose one of the deepest potholes you can find.

 By now it is already dark outside and we are in the middle of nowhere. We stop the car and notice that both of our rims on the driver's side of the car are damaged. Plus the front wheel is totally flat. The fact is, that none of us has ever changed a tire before. But at least we have headlights with us. And no other change than trying it.

In the trunk we find the spare tire and all the tools we need so we start working. I don't know how long it actually takes us, but it is way easier than I thought it would be and after some time the Picanto is ready to go again. We start again, slowly, with one wheel still damaged, the tiniest spare tire you can imagine and a road which has so many holes in it that it's impossible to avoid them. After the most stressful ride of my entire time here (and traffic in Panama is not really relaxing, believe me), we finally find small garage that is specialized in tire repairs and is still open although it's already after midnight.

We are happy but also a little bit worried since (second mistake we made:), we didn't get the optional tire and windshield insurance and have to cover all the upcoming costs by ourselves.
But then, at the same time as Panama has a lot of unexpected bad things to offer, there also always is the good ones: our tires aren't damaged, only the rims are bent, fixed within minutes and we end up paying only 10 dollars in total!

 We arrive in Boquete at 2.30am. Only a couple hours later than expected.
The rest of the weekend is simply amazing! We find the best bakery in town (Sugar&Spice, make sure to stop by when in town!), spent some hours at a coffee farm and finally climb up Vulcán Barú at night to get the unique view of two different oceans from one peak at sunrise.
I have so many unforgettable memories of that short and sleepless weekend and there is a lot more stories that could be told. Maybe some other time, but these pictures kinda speak for themselves:

As much as I miss winter at the moment, I will for sure miss this crazy country,  Naos Lab with all the snails and the amazing people I got to know here! I hope I'll be back one day!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Little Crab, Your house is on fire!

In previus post I told you that I was working on the study of crabs. The goal of this study is to see if there are difference in the eggs size of three species of crabs comparing the dry and wet seasons.

Which are the crabs that have difference in the egg size and why?

We choose three species of crabs, one porcellanid Petrolisthes armatus (I wrote about it in my previus post), one xanthid Xanthodius sternberghii and one hermit crab Clibanarius albidigitus. All of them live in the intertidial zone.

For both xanthids and porcellanids, the sampling is easy, I only catch the females with eggs and take them to the lab. But the hermit crabs, as you might know, live in a snail shell.  This makes it impossible to determine if they are females or males and if they have eggs in the field.

So the question is: How can I take them from the shell without hurting them and without breaking the shells?

To take the hermit crabs from the shell I´m using an alcohol lamp (Fotheringham, 1976a).  Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but it is a standard method, one that they teach you in invertebrate biology class.  After trying it, I really think it is the best way.  If you do it right,  they get out by themselves (of course, if your house is on fire you´re going to run) and after process them, I leave each with its shell and they go back home… In the video, you can see how I work with them!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Collin Lab Alumna: Anabell Cornejo

Way to go Anabell  - Representing the CollinLab around the world!

The last day of field work in Indonesia
Anabell worked as an intern in the CollinLab with Kecia Kerr on fiddler crabs and on measuring predation rates in the plankton.  

She's now finishing the field work on her Master's thesis at the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology in Bremen, Germany.   Her thesis is entitled   "Trace metal burdens in economic and ecological important benthic species and their distribution in sediment and waters in the Segara Anakan Lagoon, Java, Indonesia".

Good luck writing up!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Before arriving in the CollinLab I´d never worked with porcelain crabs (porcellanids).  This is my first time with these small crabs.

They are quite different from the crabs you see on your dinner plate. Their bodies are compact and flattened; this is an adaptation for living and hiding under rocks. They are very abundant along the Pacific Coast where they congregate in tide pools under rocks because they are very sensitive to desiccation.

Another characteristic of porcelain crabs is that the antennae are inserted external to the eyes, not between the eyes like in other crab families.
Petrolisthes tridentatus

Porcelain crabs are quite fragile animals.  They often shed their limbs to escape predators (or me), hence their name. They are pretty fast and when you have to collect them, you should be very carefully because you can end up catching only the body… The good news is that they only need a few days to regenerate the legs they lost.
P. armatus without a cheliped…yes, I tried to collect it.. 

I´m working with one species of these Porcellanids, Petrolishtes armatus.  They can be distinguished from similar species by an orange spot on the chela and blue mouthparts. Also another unique characteristic useful to differentiate them from another Petrolisthes species, P. tridentatus, is that the cheliped has 3 spines that are very clear to see.

P. armatus and P. tridentatus, very difficult to differentiate in the nature. 

But under the microscope you can see the difference in the cheliped

A few months ago I had no idea what they are.  And now…they are my workmates and I have to admit that they are amazing!