Progress report – March 2013

I know that I have not posted in a while so I figured an update was in order. Last time I wrote an entry was after I had spent several weeks in the field working on a number of projects.  Since August, I have been spending most of my time doing the less exciting aspects of being a biologists, and those specific to being a student. This includes lots of writing, class work, and for me lab work.

To recap, for my research I am interested in both parasites and contaminants, specifically intestinal worms and mercury in marine birds. Both of these can have negative affects on a birds health, and potentially when they occur together, they can cause an additive stress together. So, how do we figure out if they do?  Well, so far we have worked with communities and hunters to collect birds. This often means traveling out on the land with hunters to where the birds can be found.

Once we are out of town, where the eiders are flying near the land we wait for the ducks to come by. This sounds easy, but this can take hours. But when they do come by, the hunters are ready and take aim.

Once the birds are in hand, they are dissected and processed so that we can collect a large number of samples from each birds. When possible we dissect and process as many birds in the communities in order to get samples when the carcasses are still fresh. Below Joanna, a field assistant, and two hunters in Cape Dorset pre-label all the jars, bags and envelopes needed for an upcoming dissection.

Sometimes these dissections also take place in the local schools as well as the Nunavut Arctic College. The more hands, the lighter the work. With this idea in mind we often work with the students to get our dissections done.  They get the experience of working with a wildlife study, and we get help to complete our dissections.  Here are some college students helping out during the 2011 Marine Bird Dissection Workshop in Iqaluit.

After all the dissections are done we have about 25 samples/metrics from each bird that we share with a number of researchers that are interested is wildlife disease, contaminants, population tracking, bird health and diet, parasitology, marine pollution and animal migration.

We then take all the stomachs and other tissues back to the lab for further analysis. For us this means opening up all the stomachs and removing all the worms that we find. Thankfully, I have Meagan in the lab working with me to speed up processing. To open up one bird, remove all its parasites, sort them and count them can take up to a day.  I opened once that it took almost a day and a half to sort through all the worms it had. Here is Meagan sorting through stomach contents at one of our work stations. You can see a few dished of worms that she has already separated out from the sample in the yellow circle below.

But the parasites aren’t all we are interested in.  We also have breast muscle samples that we can information on the mercury levels of each bird. This requires a whole different sort of prep.  Now, when you are analyzing tissues for chemicals and contaminants it is very important that you use chemically clean instruments. All the preparation of the tissues is also done in chemical clean areas, and inside fume hoods. In order to be tested for mercury each breast muscle must be homogenized. This is actually just a fancy word for blended, and truth be told the homogenizer is actually just a very fancy blender. Again, this sounds relatively easy but because of the rigorous cleaning involved, you can really only do about 5 samples a day.

After the tissues go into the blender, all the samples and sub-samples are labeled and stored at -40°C. This allows  us to test for mercury and other contaminants of concern now, but then also store tissues in the bank for future testing as well. Each tissue and each sub-sample is given its own number. You can see below a tray of samples that have been processed with each individual breast muscle now in 4 sub-samples for the specimen bank.

So things are moving ahead. In the coming months I have community meetings, more lab work and of course getting ready to go back into the field. Which, I will continue to post about here.


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