This week in lab we learned an important (if not the most important) lesson in biological research. The lesson is that the beauty of living things lies in that….they are alive! …. and therefore, they can die. Through an unexpected series of events we saw that no matter how excellent of an experiment we design, we are working with organisms which are vulnerable to death when equipment malfunctions, and it inevitably does.
We had a wonderful salinity and community diversity experiment setup with animals collected from Coal Harbour and Jericho Yacht Club marinas, but at some point in the week the pump for our aeration system fell off the table (eek!) and left our animals without as much oxygen as would be ideal. We therefore learned that regardless of what happens, you have to keep moving forward with research. This means that an experiment testing the effect of salinity on community diversity may sometimes have to morph so that it includes the relationship between salinity and mortality as well. While this was most certainly not our intention, mistakes happen and sometimes even turn into notorious breakthroughs (if you’re really intrigued check out this book)!
While our mistake probably won’t lead to as exciting of a breakthrough as Penicillin, we did learn some new things. Aside from how unpleasant tanks of dead animals can smell, there is a relationship between the salinity (salt concentration) of the tanks the mussels were kept in and the percentage of individuals that died. In other words, more mussels died when they were kept in saltier water. It appears that sometimes through completely accidental events, we learn that there are interesting relationships going on which we could have otherwise missed.
As always, ecology is a much more complex and sticky field than the internet may have you believe. Different salinities appear to alter the composition of a community, and a theory inadvertently introduced here is that the mechanism for this interaction may be that at higher salinities less oxygen is more severe of a concern than in more brackish environments. So, animals (at least mussels) living in the salty ocean are more at risk when oxygen levels drop. While dead zones (areas with no oxygen) are a part of a natural process that occurs in the ocean, unsurprisingly, humans tend to induce dead zones when excess nutrients from things like sewage and agriculture are piped into water. It appears that this may be extra deadly for our ocean mussels :(.