11.8.15 Day 1: Aquarius Teacher Under the Sea – Melissa

Hello from Aquarius Reef Base!

My name is Melissa Norelli and I am one of the “Teachers Under the Sea”. I live and work in South Florida as a middle school math and science teacher at Unity School in Delray Beach. I’m simply amazed by our world’s oceans and am extremely passionate about science education! This week my new colleagues and I from across the US and here at FIU will be exploring the impact of sharks on coral reef herbivorous fish! To make a difference in our world, we must enlist the help of others to educate ourselves and those around us of the impact of human behaviors on our world’s most precious ecosystems. Follow us this week and spread the word to those closest to you!

This mission started long before we arrived on base in Islamorada, FL. The science team at FIU’s Medina Aquarius program has existed for quite some time and has conducted research from the reef base to help in areas of medicine, space and ocean conservation. To read more about Aquarius, simply use your favorite search engine to find out more!!! It is the world’s ONLY underwater research facility. This place is unlike any other and allows scientists, astronauts, physicians, researchers and now even teachers to come aboard and live like marine species, up close and personal, with an intent to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and affect change.

Today, the team met to go over rules and regulations, but the atmosphere of the room was fueled by the excitement of all of those involved in this project. We completed a “check out dive” and are eager to get back in the water and start working tomorrow!! Due to the simple nature of the work, there has not been a mission exploring the affects of large predator species on coral reef communities and how their impact could shape the way we interact with and act to save these habitats.

Something fascinating that I learned today was that a similar study was completed using decoy predators! These fish, however, became more comfortable after two days with these decoys and some felt that the research could not completely or clearly depict changes in behavior due to their presence. So here we are trying to attract sharks using sound emitting transducers and use real predators for the first time! These transducers will emit sounds similar to that of an injured fish. We predict that the sharks will mostly populate around this transducer or close to it in hopes of catching a delicious meal. The science team will set up tiles with micro algae (delicious fish dinner) on them and will place them purposely at varying “risk levels”. The tiles closest to the transducer should likely not experience as much grazing in the presence of sharks. Our predictions are that the fish will likely only eat from the tiles furthest from the transducers when they’re circling the area. The suspense is killing me!

So why do we care about how sharks affect fish species? Isn’t it true that we already know most fish are probably scared of the sharks that will eventually eat them? What is the purpose of studying this type of predation and why in the Florida Keys?

In another post, I will summarize the importance of bringing awareness to the overfishing and killing of so many shark species. With that said, while the sharks are seen primarily as predators, they do serve as a necessary part of the ecosystem and without them the entire ocean may suffer greatly. To put it simply, the sharks may keep the ecosystem alive and thriving just by being present. In their absence, we see that fish are more likely to venture beyond their “kitchens” and instead head to their neighborhood “sports bar” to grab something more appealing to eat. This means that even though in the Florida Keys we have plenty of herbivorous fish to eat the algae, they are not eating enough of the kind needed. This leaves the coral subject to algal overgrowth and while this seems simple… it has a BIG impact on us all. The algae blocks out the sun, so the zooxanthellae cannot perform photosynthesis. Then without the zooxanthellae, the coral polyps die too! This will lead to a less diversified group of organisms, lack of shelter for marine species, less protection for our coastlines from great waves, less food for humans from these areas (in turn effectively damaging global economies), and less resources for the medicines and home products we rely on each day! So if sharks can keep the fish feeding in particular areas just by being present, maybe we can put some new, stricter laws in place about protecting these predator species and save entire ecosystems and the world!!! We’ll know soon enough!

Wow, isn’t this all so fascinating? Everything in life is connected in some way or another. I’m so looking forward to explaining more of this to each and every one of you. One of our biggest roles this week will be to spread this message and reach as many people across the world as possible. We hope to see many of you from the live camera feeds or perhaps even during one of our virtual field trips! What an incredible opportunity it is to be a part of real science research!

Tomorrow, I will try to address the specifics for setting up the mission and relate it to the scientific method that many of us study at a young age. What does this look like for researchers and how do they use this process as an organizational tool for conducting real life research and promote further studies in the field?

Science is everywhere, never stop exploring your world!

Melissa Norelli
MS Math and Science
Unity Middle School

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