Science at UCMP : Research : Field notes: Molly Wright

Monogamy in mantis shrimp: Field notes from Molly Wright

By UCMP grad student Molly Wright, September 13-15, 2008

Molly is a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology who is interested in the evolution and reproductive behaviors of mantis shrimp (stomatopods). As a teaching assistant for a course on the biology and geomorphology of tropical islands being taught on Moorea in French Polynesia, she'll have a great opportunity to collect specimens for her research.

September 13, 2008

A drive around the island
Moorea is even more amazing by daylight. Today my fellow teaching assistants and I took the the station's Land Rover for a drive on the single road ringing the island. Dodging dogs, cats, tractors, and unyielding pedestrians, we explored the small towns that dot the road. Unfortunately, the Land Rover is a beast — designed for difficult terrain, it feels like driving a tank. The island road is quite flat, so we didn't actually need it's 4-wheel drive capabilities.

Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay dominate the north side of the island. Gump station is in Cook's Bay — this morning a tall ship was anchored right off the station and I couldn't help but imagine what it was like for Captain Cook and his crew to happen upon this tropical paradise back in 1769. Accounts say that they were greeted warmly by Polynesian women and welcomed onto the island. Today, Cook's Bay is ringed by shops and pineapple plantations. Opunohu Bay is a bit less developed and the surrounding forests are still intact.

A tall ship anchored in Cook's Bay, not far from the station A view from the passenger seat of the station's Land Rover
Left: A tall ship anchored in Cook's Bay, not far from the station. Click on the image to see an enlargement. Right: A view from the passenger seat of the station's Land Rover during our "circumnavigation" of the island.

As we cruised by the western and southern parts of Moorea, I was struck by the proximity of the houses to the ocean. Most people seem to live right on the water and many houses have small docks where the owners' motorboats are moored. Flowers frame all of the houses and outdoor kitchens are common. The quality of life is clearly high — cars and houses are well-maintained and the people seem generally happy.

The east side of the island, facing Tahiti, is my favorite by far. The lagoon stretches at least 300 meters off the island. Near the shore, there is fringing reef, followed by a long expanse of sand flat. At the far edge of the lagoon, waves smash against the barrier reef and life abounds. The small airport and ferry station are both on this side of the island in the town of Vaiare, as is Champion, the best grocery store on the island, where you can buy anything you could buy in an American supermarket, albeit at twice the price.

Houses on Moorea with 'front yards' like this are not uncommon The dark-roofed building is the Gump station's wet lab
Click on either image to see an enlargement. Left: Houses on Moorea with "front yards" like this are not uncommon. Right: The dark-roofed building is the Gump station's wet lab. You can see Cook's Bay and the rugged topography of the island in the background.

Preparing for the students
The undergraduates in IB 158C were to arrive by Sunday, so this afternoon we met with Professors Jere Lipps and Brent Mishler to discuss the first week of classes on the island. IB 158C is a gem of a class — 20 Berkeley students fly to the Gump Station on Moorea, where they design and implement their own scientific study. Upon returning to campus, they share their findings with the scientific community. The students are the cream of the crop, selected through an application process for their intelligence and enthusiasm. The course gives them a valuable opportunity to test the skills they've learned in the classroom and, for most students, gives them a first taste of what field research is like. The first week that they are here, we take them on several field trips to orient them to Moorea and give them ideas for research projects. I'm really looking forward to mentoring these students as they take their first steps toward becoming research scientists.

September 14, 2008

A visit to the Gump House
A nighttime view of the Cook's Bay shoreline as seen from Gump House
A nighttime view of the Cook's Bay shoreline as seen from Gump House.
Today, Neil Davies, the director of Gump Station, introduced the students to the station, laying down the ground rules and introducing the key staff. We then went up to his home, which was once the island mansion of Richard Gump, for cocktails and conversation. Richard Gump, of Gump's department store fame, was also a collector of Polynesian artifacts, a writer, composer, and musician, as well as a philanthropist, donating the station property to Berkeley in 1981. Since then, UC Berkeley has made good use of the station, building a state-of-the-art laboratory and pulling in millions of dollars of grants. The Gump House is in much the same condition as it was when Gump lived there — gorgeous, with a view to die for!

Tomorrow, I will be starting my field adventures on the IB 158C circa-island field trip. Until then, au revoir!

September 15, 2008

The circa-island tour
Now that all of the students in IB 158C have settled in to the Gump Station, it is time to get them started thinking about their independent research projects. Our job, as instructors, is to expose them to different island habitats, feed them ideas, critique their experimental designs, and help facilitate their studies once they figure out what they want to research. In order to jump start this process, today we took the class on a circum-island tour where they got to explore new environments, learn a bit about Polynesian culture, and orient themselves to the geography of Moorea. For the other graduate students and me, it's a great opportunity to learn what the professors leading the tour know about the island and to get a sense of where we may conduct our own research.

We all crowded into the Land Rovers — there was just enough room for all 25 of us in the three giant vehicles — and headed about a mile down the road to Paopao, the closest town. We pulled up next to the local grocery store, Ares, and hopped out of the vehicles to take a look at the estuary feeding Cook's Bay. The murky water was not very inviting, so we did not stay long.

We then drove up the dirt road through Paopao Valley, where Dr. Brent Mishler pointed out several cultivated crops, mainly pineapples and noni. We watched from a hill as farmers clearcut and burned parts of the valley to make way for new crops. The agricultural clearing of mid-elevations in Moorea is nothing new. The Polynesians have grown crops at these sites for thousands of years and many of the plants living in these areas are not native. Still, it was a bit shocking to see the lush green forest giving way to barren ground.

Along the same dirt road, we stopped at a stream surrounded by native forest. Dr. Mishler pointed out the Tahitian chestnuts and hibiscus plants dominating the forest. In the stream pools we saw guppies with blue-black eyespots and orange markings, shrimp, and water striders. Nearby, in Opunohu Valley, we stopped at several marae. Marae are Polynesian sacred sites, usually rock or coral platforms bordered by ti plants, that were used for religious, social, and familial occasions by the ancient Polynesians. The marae at this site had been reconstructed by an archaeologist in the early 20th century and had probably been used for religious ceremonies. After checking out these fascinating stone structures, we continued along the road through the Opunohu Valley until we reached the Belvedere Lookout, the highest point on the island accessible by car. As we lunched at the Belvedere, we could see the entire north side of the Island, Cook's Bay on the right and Opunohu Bay on the left, with Mount Rotui rearing up in the middle.

Land being cleared by fire for agricultural uses in the Paopao Valley The fall 2008 IB 158C class at Moorea's Belvedere Overlook
Molly standing next to the King Stone Space station image of northeastern Moorea
Click on any image to see an enlargement. Top left: Land being cleared by fire for agricultural uses in the Paopao Valley. Top right: The fall 2008 IB 158C class at Moorea's Belvedere Overlook. That's Mount Rotui and a bit of Opunohu Bay that you can see in the background. Bottom left: Molly and the King Stone in Papetoai. Bottom right: Northeastern Moorea as seen from the International Space Station.

We returned to the main road ringing the island and continued to our next stop, the estuary of the Opunohu River, where we examined the wildlife on the black sand beach. Most beaches on volcanic islands have black sand, formed from erosion of basalt rocks. The beach was surrounded by mangrove ferns, which can tolerate the salty estuarine waters. Land crabs, omnipresent on the island, were abundant among the mangroves. They territorially guard burrows, fighting over one of their favorite foods, hibiscus leaves. A few miles down the road we checked out the octagonal Ebenezer Church at Papetoai, a local landmark built on the site of Marae Taputaputuatea, an important Polynesian ceremonial site that was destroyed by missionaries. The King Stone, a seven-foot-tall monolith, stands next to the church — we all checked out how we measured up to the mythical king that the stone honors. He definitely has a few inches on me!

When we finally made it round to the eastern side of the island, I felt like I was in paradise. At Temae Beach, white sands frame a lagoon that stretches out for at least 200 meters before hitting the barrier reef. Patches of Acropora corals dot the lagoon, containing a myriad of beautiful reef fishes and invertebrates. Since the substrate at Temae is very sandy, I'm excited to come back here in the future to look for my study species, Pullosquilla litoralis!

Night view from Gump House by Jennifer Imamura; land clearing by fire by Vanessa Van Zerrall; Moorea image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center, photo number ISS007-E-14617,; all other photos courtesy of Molly Wright.