Saturday, September 15, 2012


Stingrays are always a hit with families – kids and adults – at aquariums around the country.  This picture was taken at the Georgia Aquarium at their huge whale shark tank. Trust me, its worth a trip to Atlanta. 
This summer, I visited the Texas State Aquarium for the first time. They have a big touch tank where you can touch the fish and feed them. A few dollars gets you a tray of silversides, small fish that make a great stingray snack. 

I love visiting aquariums. I learn something new every time.

Like sharks, stingrays are fish made of cartilage – the same material as your earlobes and the tip of your nose. Their skin is covered in a layer of mucus that protects the stingrays from bacteria. This is why they feel a little slimy if you happen to touch one in an aquarium touch tank.
Stingrays get their name because of the barbs on their tails. The barbs are made from keratin, the same material as you hair and fingernails. They are covered in a toxin and can cause a painful wound.

These fish aren’t aggressive but they enjoy warm shallow water just like we do. They are also very good at camouflaging themselves in the sand. One way to take extra care is to do the “stingray shuffle” when you’re enjoying the beach. Instead of taking steps in the water, shuffle your feet back and forth in the sand as you move. The movement will scare the stingrays away and you both can enjoy your day at the beach.
On the rare chance you do step on a stingray, don’t pull out the barb! Run the area under hot water, as hot as you can stand. The heat will help denature the toxin. A doctor should remove the barb. Even if the barb is not intact, the wounds are easily infected because of the toxins and you might need antibiotics. Take a trip to the hospital to be safe.

Learn more about the stingrays of the Texas State Aquarium. They have Atlantic stingrays, southern stingrays, and cownose rays in the touch tank and a colorful electric ray inside the aquarium.  
Learn more about skates and rays in general at the FloridaMuseum of Natural History or head over to Animal Planet

Photos and video by Sara K. MacSorley 

Monday, September 10, 2012


When I was in college I took a course about fish diversity. We learned about fish evolution and memorized a bunch of latin names. I enjoyed when species had the same genus and species name. The Atlantic silverside is one of those fish species, its latin name being Menidia menidia.

There is a whole set of fish called silversides. They have long slim bodies, big eyes, and shiny silver scales.

The old adage “safety in numbers” is true for silversides. Silversides often school, forming large masses like in this video taken during my semester abroad in Bermuda. Coming together as a school makes it harder for a predator to pick out individual fish for food.

Unfortunately for them, silversides are a delicious commodity. The small fish are common and are toward the bottom of the food chain. Predators include seabirds and larger fish like stingrays and striped bass (or rockfish as its fondly called back home).

In addition to being food in the wild, silversides are often used as baitfish and can be bought to feed larger fish in aquariums. Silversides are also sometimes used in toxicity studies. They are sensitive to environmental changes so these tiny fish are important on a much larger scale, as possible indicators of a changing climate. 

Here are several resources to learn more about silversides from the Maryland State Department of Natural Resources and the Marine Biological Laboratory. Check out this Sea Grant fact sheet to learn more about schooling. 

Video by Sara K. MacSorley 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Celebrating a Birthday on Buzzards Bay

Last week I took the day off and drove to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Blue skies made the sing along in the car all the more enjoyable (no pictures or audio of that to share, trust me this is probably a good thing).  
My destination was the Marine Biological Laboratory, a mecca for marine science research and education. I got the official insider’s tour complete with some time sitting on the water-facing benches taking in the sea air.

What a perfect day for a break and some biology.

The Marine Biological Lab dates back to 1888. The original building is now the library and the architecture is amazing. The massive brick building is full of beautiful hardwood tables, big chairs, and marine animal teaching charts from the late 1800s. There is a history around every corner, including a large sign reading “study nature, not books.” Harvard biologist Loius Agassiz signed this prized piece. Among many other things, Agassiz started a school dedicated to study marine life on Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay and that school is considered the seed that grew into the Marine Biological Lab.  
The wet lab is huge – tanks as far as you can see. A friend steered me through the maze of wet floors and running water. We saw horseshoe crabs, squid, black sea bass, toadfish, spider crabs, lobsters, urchins, sea squirts, and more. There was a tank of clams the size of softballs – carefully labeled for “research only.” No chowder pots for those guys!
The little touch tank at the front showcased some of the local marine life. A small blue lobster turned out to be my best photo model of the afternoon.
The classroom and lab spaces were outfitted with more technology and equipment than I’ve ever seen before. There were people everywhere; I could feel a real sense of community. It was great to see a place that has created a culture that promotes such enthusiasm and passion about marine life.
After the tour, we took a drive past the beaches and Nobska Point Lighthouse to have lunch in Falmouth. Plus I got to visit the infamous Pie in the Sky bakery. The sun was shining, the seafood was fresh, and the company was fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday. 
Photos by Sara K. MacSorley

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Dogfish are small sharks that grow up to a few feet in length. Like some other shark species, they are counter-shaded. Their coloration is dark on the top half of their body and light on the bottom. This makes the dogfish harder to see from both above and below – an advantage to avoiding predators and approaching prey.

You can see the countershading in this video is of the Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias). You can also see the characteristic white spots along their back as they dance for the camera.

A fun fact about the Spiny Dogfish is that they carry their young internally and have the longest gestation period for any vertebrate found to date. For us humans, gestation lasts about 9 months. For a spiny dogfish, gestation lasts two years!

After 24 months, the litters of dogfish enter the world. Funny how both dogs and dogfish have groups of young called litters.

When I was a kid, my family went to Biomes – a little aquarium in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. They had a tank full of dogfish sharks and we got to touch them! I remember being a bit nervous; after all, I had never touched a shark before! They felt like suede and they weren’t threatening at all. That was when I realized that sharks weren’t scary monsters. They are however, another incredible ocean creature that needs our attention and action to survive.

Unfortunately, the dogfish shark population has decreased along with many other shark species. You can learn more about the dogfish population and the stocks of other fish through Fish Watch.

If you're ever in North Kingstown, be sure to check out Biomes too. You won't be disappointed. 

Video by Sara K. MacSorley
Thanks to University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography - Marine Life Science Facility 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Clownfish – Better known as Nemo

I recently saw Dr. Peter Buston from Boston University speak about his research on the clownfish Amphiprion percula. The talk reminded me of some fun clownfish facts.
Clownfish can live over 30 years. That means there are clownfish out there older than me!

Clownfish live in anemones that keep them protected from predators with their stinging cells. The fish are immune to those stings and predation is pretty much a non-issue because of this relationship. Maybe that is how they live so long!

When eggs hatch the larvae are dispersed into the water and rarely settle on their family anemones (this makes sense when you think about genetic diversity). Makes you wonder how Nemo ended up in the same anemone as Marlin in “Finding Nemo.”

Each anemone can have a group of clownfish living in it – a breeding pair and possibly some others. The group dynamic is based on a size hierarchy – the largest and most powerful fish is the breeding female. In these pictures from Horn Point Lab you can see that the size difference in breeding pairs.
If the female dies, the next largest male then rises to the occasion – literally. The male will turn into a female and the most dominant fish in the group! That gives a whole new twist to “Finding Nemo” – Marlin would have become Mandy after Coral got eaten by the barracuda at the beginning of the movie.
When I worked at Horn Point during college (the same place I learned more about Blue Crabs) we had a few projects going on with clownfish. The lab was doing feeding studies to learn what food would make the clownfish grow the fastest and have the best coloration. The idea was to figure out how to breed the best-colored clownfish fast for the aquarium trade. Using aquaculture to breed clownfish is a better option for aquarist because the fish aren’t taken from reefs in the wild – sometimes by environmentally damaging methods like cyanide fishing.
The clownfish were by far the favorite animal of the school kids who came through to visit over the summer. One thing I remember about the clownfish is that they were quite territorial. We would put terracotta tiles in the tanks for the females to lay their eggs on – mimicking the hard surface that an anemone would attach to in the wild. Then the female would lay her eggs and after several days we had to take the tiles out of the tank, transfer them to another tank, and count all the eggs. 

It was the lab joke to have the newest person reach in to take out the tiles – without telling them that the fish would fight for it! I remember them drawing blood a few times. In high salinity water, that wasn’t a good time but watching the babies hatch out and grow was totally worth it.

Visit Dr. Buston’s website to learn more about his research.

Photos by Sara K. MacSorley

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Last week I was invited to be a speaker at the Girls Interested in Real Life Science (GIRLS) Program at the Ocean Explorium in New Bedford - a great aquarium and education center with a shark and ray touch tank and a huge salt-water fish and coral tank. GIRLS is about getting middle school girls interested in marine science and giving them something positive to do after school. 
My talk was about the importance of mentors for women in science. I also had an inspiring amount of support from women in science friends and colleagues around the world who let me use them as examples to show the students the range of what science careers are possible. Thank you ladies! 
Before the talk, the girls and I got to learn more about local fisheries. The ocean and Buzzards Bay have been of great importance to New Bedford’s economy throughout the city’s history. During the 19th Century, New Bedford was a whaling capitol. Now, the city is known for bringing in the majority of scallops in the fishing industry worldwide.
We had a speaker from the School for Marine Science and Technology at UMass Dartmouth who gave us a fisheries presentation, walked us through the fishing docks explaining the different types of boats and equipment, and then led a scallop dissection.

Each student got to dissect an Atlantic Sea Scallop (Placopecten magellanicus). There are several types of scallops; you can see them both in the market and both are important to New Bedford’s waters and economy. Sea scallops have smooth shells and are relatively large. Bay scallops are smaller and have “scalloped” shells.
We were guided through identifying all the parts of the scallop. The adductor muscle is the large muscle that connects the two shells – it’s also the part that you eat. Along the edges of the shell you’ll see little black dots along the mantle. These are the eyes of the scallop. They aren’t as complex and developed as our eyes but they do sense light. Scallops have a large black liver that they use to filter feed. You can also see the gills they use to get oxygen out of the water.

The students had to tell us whether they had a male or female scallop too.  The males have a white sex organ and in the females it’s pink. How appropriate!

After we finished the dissection, we cooked up the scallops and had a snack. Since we only ate the adductor muscle and didn’t want anything to go to waste, we fed the fish at the Ocean Explorium with the rest of the scallop. The fisherman at sea do the same thing, they shuck out the adductor muscle and throw the rest overboard so it goes back into the food chain.
Scallops are an important food for us as people (as long as the fishery uses sustainable practices) and for other marine animals like sea stars. Sea stars can actually push their stomach outside their own body and through the two scallop shells to digest the meat! In addition to being a yummy source of protein, scallops are also critical to the Buzzards Bay ecosystem. They feed by filtering the water and help keep the Bay clean. Unfortunately, human actions are effecting the scallop population in the Bay. Increased nitrogen in the water from septic systems and overall development are causing a decline in eelgrass – an important environment for scallops.

You can learn more about the nitrogen pollution in Buzzards Bay and how people can help mitigate the problem at the Buzzards Bay Coalition. Take a trip to visit the Wheeler Learning Center in downtown New Bedford or check out the resources on their website -

If you’re in New Bedford be sure to check out the Whaling Museum for a real history lesson -

You can also learn more about the School for Marine Science and Technology here if you’re interested in their programs -

Photos and anatomy diagram by Sara K. MacSorley

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Letter to My Younger Self

If you could tell your younger self what you know now, what would you say? 

This was exactly the question to answer in this Letter to Your Younger Self project for the Science Club for Girls

As a woman in science, what would you tell your younger self about the challenges and issues they will face? What have you learned? 

Here is a quote from my letter: 
"Second, talk to the people who do the jobs you think are interesting. I can’t stress enough how important mentors have been in my life. Talking to people in the area you want to be in is a great way to learn if that is what you really want to do and how to get there. How do you get a mentor? Find out who does the jobs that you’re interested in and then let them know you admire what they do; this will start a conversation. Ask questions about their research or recommend a good book or documentary on shared topics of interest.
My mentors in marine science and education have helped me find a path to graduate school, helped me get jobs, and helped me network with other great people all over the country. Some have become colleagues and many have become friends." 
Its important for us women in science to advocate for each other and encourage and support the next generation. Who can you mentor? 

Read my entire letter here at the Science Club for Girls website.