Research typically starts with asking a question and aims to end with a result…that will inevitably lead to more questions, comparable to a positive feedback loop. But the world of research is not easy, breezy, and beautiful (“Cover Girl”). Challenges await a researcher at every step of the process, from developing the question to the final product of publishing their findings. One can attempt to plan ahead and predict the curve balls that may occur such as inclement weather or your experimental design not working perfectly in the field, but as they say, “It happens.” “It” potentially being a forecast of 0% chance of storms and then finding yourself in the middle of a torrential downpour 15 minutes into the field day. Developing my question, planning for execution, and speculating the analysis for my independent project has been quite the initiation into the world of research.
First, for my independent project I am investigating the relative importance of different sized corallivores on transplanted coral survivorship. I have covered the importance and background of my focal coral species, Acropora palamata, in previous posts (here and here). However, one key ecological interaction I have not mentioned thus far is predation. Large parrotfish, damselfish, and small butterfly fish are known to eat various parts of coral. Newly transplanted coral propagules are typically unprotected or uncovered, allowing them to be susceptible to predators. I am curious if temporarily excluding these known predators when coral propagules are initially transplanted can improve long-term coral growth and survival.
It took a full day of brainstorming to complete our experimental design. We visited 2 hardware stores where we stared at supplies normal people would use for plumbing and fencing. You know what they say: one man’s sewage piping is a researcher’s crafted underwater structure. There were several options to consider with pros and cons to weigh when deciding what to purchase. For example, the length and type of nails for cage construction was discussed for about 45 minutes. Once the field materials were acquired and after a few hours of nicking myself with wired hardware cloth, we conjured 4 treatments for our design: exclude all possible fish, exclude only large fish (parrotfish), exclude no fish, and a cage control. Excluding all fish required all sides of the coral to be inaccessible to fish whereas excluding no fish required a simple PVC mount to allow fish access from all sides. We excluded only large fish by cutting two small holes on each side of the cage to allow smaller butterfly fish and damselfish access to the corals. The cage control, which excludes no fish but is still present, is important because a cage itself may have an unpredicted effect on coral growth such as inhibiting light, promoting algal growth, or altering normal fish behavior. If the cage does have an effect, we can separate cage versus treatment effects in our experiment.
Following cage construction, Enie and I were off to put our experiment on the ground and balanced 32 cages, small coral fragments, and snorkel equipment on a 2-seater kayak. The first day ended up being that kind of field day; thunderstorms were chasing each other around our field site and our confident expectations of setting all cages thus fell short. However, the next day was far more productive, allowing us complete all that we set out to accomplish whilst swimming with nurse sharks, schools of snapper, and a curious triggerfish. All in all, the project is underway and I cannot wait to collect data in the beginning of August.