Wanna know if your neighborhood stream is suffering from pollution? Ask its invertebrates

The kids play by it, the dogs jump in it, the salmon swim with it and you occasionally go to dip your finger in and see how cold it is – it’s your friendly neighborhood stream! Have you visited it lately? Do you wonder how it’s doing? Is it well and healthy? You need answers! WE need answers! But who should we ask? Whose wisdom should we seek?

Let’s investigate! To the literature!


YI have a sponge who does my literature search – we’ll give him a second (source: gify.com)

You see, it’s really tough being a stream in this day and age! Human activity is constantly introducing pollutants and contaminated run-offs. Ranging from biological waste and sewage to petroleum products and fertilizers, the fresh water systems near us can become a chemical cocktail due to our activities. The storm drains that you see around the city often lead to a nearby stream and they can carry chemicals of all sorts (including engine-oil or cleaning products from when we wash something outside). Rain water run-offs can wash out fertilizers from nearby lawns and gardens and bring chemical contaminants into the stream. So, one thing is for sure: our local streams have likely seen some rough days.

stream - source_GIPHY.com

How tranquil is the sound of water – let us not pollute! (source: gify.com)

These intrusions often lead to changes in the composition and content of the water that make it toxic for the organisms that inhabit these systems to survive. Some species radically reduce in numbers or even disappear completely, if the water pollution reaches critical thresholds. Different organisms can have different sensitivities to these contaminants and it is often the smallest organisms that are affected first and hit the hardest by water contaminants.


So, we have our first hint! if we wisdom about your stream’s water quality you seek, it’s small freshwater creatures you need.

operah wondering about something deep.gif

Oprah is deeply engaged here, she loves mysteries! (Source: gify.com)


How do we find them, you ask? With kick-nets – a small net attached to a stick. First, we go to a local stream that is relatively undisturbed by human activity to see whether we can find these small creatures. Having the kick-net in the water, we kick water from the stream into the net to catch some of these creatures.

kick-sampling Source- Microscopy UK

How to kick-net – Source: Microscopy UK

Well, I did this and….surprise! we caught some of these small guys! Looking at them under the magnifier, we’d see that they are invertebrates! Small invertebrates such as stoneflies! You can identify stoneflies by their two-tales and they are only a few mm long so look carefully at what you catch in the net.


Behold! A stonefly! (Source: database of Aquatic Insects of Central Virginia)

Our next step would be to do this in potentially contaminated stream and see whether we can still find freshwater invertebrates there – get a kick-net and try it out! Based on work by other scientists, freshwater invertebrates are very sensitive to pollutants and should be one of the first species to be affected by traces of contamination.

So, the rest of this scientific investigation can be up to you! But for a start, at least we know: who is wise enough to tell you how polluted your stream is? The freshwater invertebrates, of course! They can tell you how your stream is doing – such wisdom!

giphy (1)

Joffrey wants to study freshwater invertebrates too (source: gify.com)


First Time Home Buyers, Look No Further!

Myself along with many other millennials have found ourselves in a predicament: we need money for a home, and money certainly isn’t easy to come by.

I’ve curated a list of homes that is firstly free, in that the land upkeep is all taken care of by the neighbours. Secondly, it’s in a safe environment, the crime rate is low as the area isn’t in an urban setting. Thirdly, it’s in a beautiful location, surrounded by the Pacific Rim National Park and by Barkley Sound. These homes are best suited for invertebrates, however for the not faint of heart vertebrates, please go ahead and pursue!

The Sword Ferns

Swordfern, abundantly found through the Bamfield rainforest. Image by Antonia Wu.

Located in the Bamfield rainforest and receives surplus amounts of rainwater. Recommended for those with young ones.


As my offspring were growing up and learning to crawl and discovering their environment. The Sword Ferns was such a great place for them to do so, it’s secure and with so many neighbours in the area, there was always someone to keep an eye of them!

– Paul M.



A knocked down tree, likely from a wind storm. Image by Antonia Wu.

The Undergrowth

Located in the heart of the Bamfield rainforest. This area is filled with nutrient covered water beds. The area receives 4m of rain annually allowing for water pools on the forest ground with shallow tree root projections. Perfect for tapeworm parents looking for a cozy environment to raise their young.


My family of parasites have such great memories with this property. As I had thousands of children, you could imagine how hard it was to watch them as they were learning to swim. At the Undergrowth, there are many pools available and even the younger ones afraid of swimming found it comfortable with the  root projections to hold on to.

–   Harry P.

A little tide pool. Image by Antonia Wu.

The Rocks

Located right on the beach at the edge of the Bamfield rainforest.  These tiny little nooks are great for the adventurous couples.


My best friend and I just graduated from university and wanted to spend a year exploring. The Rocks were great for that as we were so close to the beach and had easy access to the open waters.

– Hermione G.

Where the land meets the water. Image by Antonia Wu.

The Caves

Located on the beach by the Strawberry bushes at the Bamfield rainforest. Recommended for those who want a taste of adventure but also like the comforts of home.


My partner and I are not very extroverted but wanted to gain some new experiences. We were able to swim out from The Caves, get to know some our neighbours and easily go home and enjoy the quietness as we were shielded by the seaweed.

– Freddie M.

Best of luck, happy home searching!


We all float down here

Ever wonder how many microscopic organisms you’re ingesting when you accidentally take a big gulp of salty seawater while snorkelling? Or why the water looks cloudy or clear depending on the time of the year? Well there’s no need to follow a clown and go down a drain to find out, just follow me through this blog post and you’ll know.

Come along for the ride aspirating scientists. Meme generated by me on https://imgflip.com/memegenerator/99384040/pennywise-in-sewer

On the second day of our Bamfield trip, one of the activities included a boat ride to Grappler Inlet nearby for a plankton tow. Plankton are drifting organisms that are unable to swim against the current, meaning their movement is controlled by the water movement. They are comprised of a wide variety of organisms ranging from tiny microscopic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to the gigantic Portuguese man-of-war which can be longer than a blue whale (more on that here).

The two main types of plankton are phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton are the “plants” of the planktonic world, they are capable of photosynthesis and making their own food for sustenance. Zooplankton on the other hand, like animals and us, need to obtain energy from other sources so they feed on bacteria, phytoplankton, each other or detritus in the water.

Away we went on the boat in search of plankton! Photo by me

We did shallow and deep plankton tows at the mouth of the inlet by casting nets overboard to different depths and doing doughnuts with the boat. Then we reeled the nets back in and collected our haul in “official plankton receptacles” (glorified jugs) to be brought back to the lab for observation. A peek into the jugs revealed lots of little brown dots in the water, some darting back and forth and some just drifting about. In the lab, a look under the dissecting microscope opened our eyes (literally) to a new world.

There were all kinds of things swimming around in jerky motions, some eyes staring back at us and a variety of colours could also be seen. Both the shallow and deep tows were made up of mostly zooplankton, as phytoplankton are in shorter supply around this time of the year. Peak times for abundant phytoplankton are usually during the spring and late fall, as there is more light and nutrients during these periods, and these can cause massive blooms. We did see some diatoms though, which are small unicellular algae that grow glass cases, and these guys are responsible for about 25% of the oxygen on Earth!

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An example of the diversity of diatoms. Image from http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/BOT201/Algae/Bot%20201%20Diatom%20page.gif

Now for zooplankton, which were by far the majority of the brown specks we could see in the water. There were zoea (crab larvae), copepods (another type of crustacean), shrimp larvae, comb jellies, fish larvae, arrow worms and many more. All very cool and quite jarring to look at up close because it’s not what you would think they would look like.


Baby crabs which look nothing like their parents. Image from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/84/63/f2/8463f2bb13eceb6b7bc5f560ae03b3a8.jpg


Do these copepods look familiar? Image from https://fthmb.tqn.com/5_R3i9t91RF4_DKUppasc1OJP40=/960×0/filters:no_upscale()/Copepods-GettyImages-478633023-5924e0b93df78cbe7e1cae57.jpg


It’s this guy! Image from https://i.pinimg.com/736x/a6/ba/4d/a6ba4d9bec5bdce41fe9c24d3773c03c–cartoon-shows-cartoon-characters.jpg


Arrow worms, which are mostly transparent and have scary jaws for feeding on yummy zooplankton. Image from http://ocean.si.edu/sites/default/files/styles/blog_photo/public/photos/arrow_worm_alverino.jpg?itok=oFCa6sEY

So next time you take a dip in the ocean, I hope you’ll be conscious of what’s in that gulp of water you just swallowed. Don’t worry, it’s not harmful for your health.

Are humans the pinnacle of evolution?

Single-celled organisms (i.e. life) arose approximately 4 billion years ago. Multicellular organisms arose 1-3 billion years ago, plants came into the picture 700 millions years ago, and modern day animals didn’t arise until 500-600 million years ago. But Homo sapiens started to evolve a mere 300,000 years ago (approximately)! We are infants compared to other life on this planet, and, technically speaking, since evolution is a perpetual process with no theoretical end date, humans can’t really be the apogee of millions of years of life on earth.

Did you know that the oldest group of animals can be found in British Columbia, even in Vancouver? You don’t have to fly to another continent, you can simply walk down to the beach at low tide. I have been to hundreds of beaches, and it wasn’t until last weekend that I realized that more than just crabs, snails, mussels, and seaweed live on the beach. The rocks are literally teeming with life.


I spy with my little eye… 10 different species in this picture, including the oldest animal! – Credit: Gillian Trotter

In amongst the seaweed, anemones, mussels, limpets, star fish, algae, and barnacles, lies

(drumroll please!)



The purple/pink blob is actually a lavender sponge (Haliclona permollis). – Credit: Gillian Trotter

Yep! Sometimes I can hardly believe it either, but the blob of cells that Spongebob Squarepants is modelled after is technically an animal.


Sponges are masses of cells that eat, breathe, and reproduce, despite having no nervous, digestive, excretory, respiratory, or circulatory system. They aren’t plants because they don’t get their energy from the sun, and because their cells don’t contain cellulose – in fact some sponges are made of silicon dioxide, the same stuff that’s in glass.

Here is a good video that talks how sea sponges work, and how humans use them.

Venus flower basket glass sponge. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition

Are humans the culmination of evolution, or is the hearty sea sponge evolution’s masterpiece? I would argue that sponges are the smartest animal on the planet. “How?” you might ask. What makes this animal so much more advanced than humans: an upright, two-legged species with technology, religion, medicine, cultural traditions, and conscious thought (not to mention the fact that we have been to outer space)? Well, if “smart” means “can outlive any other animal”, then sponges have it down pat. Sponges have been persisting on Earth for about 550 million years longer than modern day humans, and they look much the same as they probably did all those many years ago. Do humans have the capacity to persist that long? If we could flash forward 500 million years, would we still see humans on the planet, looking mostly the same as we do today? Sponges have survived ice ages and natural disasters, and have adapted to live in many different levels of the ocean. Some species can grow over three meters wide and can live hundreds to thousands of years, and some species have evolved to become predators

Are conscious thought and opposable thumbs the key to living forever, or is it the correct balance of eating, breathing, reproducing, and dying that prevents extinction? Could humans use their highly evolved and complex brains to invent a way to extend life, or does the key to immortality lie in some tube-like cell masses on the ocean floor? Humans have only just begun to climb the evolutionary mountain compared to sponges, which reached the summit long ago.

Off the deep end? When you dredge more to try to dredge less

While at the Bamfield Marine sciences Centre, we did a little dredging around Wizard Islet. Dredging commonly entails dragging a heavy net called a dredge along the ocean floor. Dredging is done to keep waterways around harbors deep enough for large boats or preparing an area for future construction. Some types of seafood are also dredged from the ocean because the animals live on the ocean floor. These include lots of shellfish, such as oysters, clams, scallops, crabs and sea cucumbers. Dredging keeps seafood affordable because of how easy and quick it is to just drag them up en masse. Imagine how expensive a simple clam chowder might be if all the little clams had to be collected one by one by a little submersible or a diver!

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A commercial oyster dredge with its catch of oysters. Image from: http://www.crystalseasoysters.com/in-shell/#!/home

As you could imagine though, dragging a huge object across the bottom of the ocean might cause a few problems for the critters that live there. Ever seen a coral reef in a photograph or even in person? Imagine how bad it would be for all the coral if you crushed everything with heavy machinery. Coral reefs don’t always exist where dredging is done, but there are lots of sponges, mussel beds, and non-moving creatures that are killed when by dredging. With these creatures gone, the animals that use them for protection, such as fish, shrimp, octopuses, and many others, find themselves homeless.


BIOL 326 students sorting through the dredge contents. Image by me. 

It’s hard for many people to understand the physical damage dredging causes since it’s hidden underwater. On land however, it might be comparable to Godzilla using a Godzilla-sized combine harvester to scoop up humans, skyscrapers and all, instead of catching us one by one. Not only does dredging destroy habitat but disturbing the muck at the bottom of the ocean also churns up pollutants and harmful chemicals that have settled to the sea floor. These chemicals can end up harming fish and other wildlife far beyond the dredging site.

So with all the downsides of dredging, why did we set out to dredge in the first place? The answer to that question comes from the finer details of our methods and motivations. For one, our dredge was 1 foot across compared to commercial dredges which can be many meters wide. Secondly, we towed our dredge for 30 meters, whereas other dredging operations run for miles. This reduces the amount of sea floor that is damaged by the dredge. Lastly, we were super careful to keep the dredged critters alive and well. We quickly sorted out any delicate animals into their own little container to protect them from being crushed. Additionally, we always kept the animals wet and above water for only ten minutes before gently returning them. Lastly, we used dredging as a method to learn about the critters of the ocean floor. Our dredging served to foster awareness and respect for the creatures of the ocean floor, which might result in the future development of ways to avoid the need for large scale dredging.

This very spiky urchin came up in the dredge. Image by me. 


So what creatures did we end up seeing? Well for one, LOTS! We saw fuzzy decorator crabs, brilliantly colored nudibranchs, fat sea cucumbers, many types of starfish, cup corals, hermit crabs and many more. Sadly, we did not see an octopus as many of us were hoping for. Perhaps next time…

The Guardian goes into more detail on dredging here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/11/the-facts-about-dredging

Why the hemlock hangs its head in shame

Once upon a time, the creator organized a celebration to award trees with their cones. Douglas-fir and cedar were early and got to pick nice big cones. However, hemlock was late. By the time he arrived, only the smallest, least desirable cones were left. That is why hemlock has small cones, and ever since then, hemlock hangs its head in shame for its cones. At least, that’s a story told by the Northwest Coastal First Nations to explain why western hemlock trees have tops that hang downwards. The evolutionary reason for why hemlocks droop that way probably has more to do with helping it survive. Perhaps the flexibility of the young tips of the hemlock allow them to bend with the wind instead of breaking. Or maybe they bend like that to shed snow that falls on them in winter, which keeps them from breaking under the weight. In any case, such stories highlight the importance of western hemlock to the First Nations who inhabit the Pacific Northwest.


Old growth rainforest right up to the water at strawberry Point, Bamfield. Photo by me. 

Western hemlocks grow close to the sea along the West coast, from Alaska down to California and everywhere in between. However, some trees eschew the coastal scenery in favor of the mountains and grow a bit inland in the Rockies instead. Besides the cones and the droopy tops, you can recognize them by their immense height (up to 70 meters tall!), small flattened needles, and silvery, lightly grooved bark. Along the coast, hemlocks are an integral part of the majestic old growth temperate rainforest, such as those around Bamfield. The “old growth” part means a forest that hasn’t been logged for at least several hundred years. This means they have a big variety of tree sizes, from young seedlings all the way to towering forest giants that are centuries old. As for the “rainforest” part, as an Albertan living in Vancouver, I can attest that it is indeed rather rainy here. Old growth rainforests are extremely important ecologically, providing homes for rare species such as spotted owls and marbled murrelets. Sadly, most of the original old growth forest has been logged in the last Century or two.

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Western hemlock showing drooping tip. Image from Pinterest. 

Historically, Coastal First Nations used western hemlocks in many ways. They used its wood for making tools, fishing gear and other small implements. The chemicals in hemlock bark helped them tan animal hides to make clothing and shelter. They even scraped out the inner bark of the hemlock to make flour for bread and cakes! Nowadays, western hemlock is a valuable source of lumber and a popular ornamental tree to plant in parks. However, if you’re considering planting a hemlock, you better have the space to accommodate one.

Western hemlock cones. Note how tiny they are. Image from: http://www.conifers.org/pi/Tsuga_heterophylla.php

If you live in Western North America, pay attention to the trees next time you go for a hike in the forest or a stroll in a park. If you see a needle-bearing tree with small cones and a hanging head, it may well be a western hemlock. Just don’t go and tease it about its cones. They tend to be a bit sensitive about that.

Want to find out more about western hemlock? Here’s what the government of Canada has to say about them: https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/documents/treebook/westernhemlock.htm

Welcome to the Rocky Horror Intertidal Show!

Fresh off the bumpy logging road to Bamfield (which luckily did not leave us stranded with a flat tire, although our van did emit some worrying sounds of protest), we were thrust into the horrific world of exploring and navigating the rocky intertidal zone of Aguilar Beach in the dark. The animals we found that night though, were not quite as horrendous as you might think. In fact, we budding marine biologists actually adore all these quirky little critters!

Are you ready? Image from https://www.quotemaster.org/rocky+horror+picture+show

At first glance with your handy headlight, you may see just a bunch of rocks with barnacles that crunch under your gum boots as you try your best not to slip and fall to your death, and perhaps some pieces of floppy seaweeds here and there. But wait, have you tried flipping over the rocks and seeing what’s underneath them? Or peering into the cracks between rocks to see if you find anything staring back at you? These unexpected crevices are where we discovered the magic of the intertidal zone, teeming with life and waiting to be explored.

Eager BIOL 326 students identifying animals and algae and sharing their finds. Photo by me

First off, we saw the usual suspects, the snails, although we did find quite a few different types of whelks and periwinkles thanks to the identification key that was provided. Instead of stargazing up at the night sky, we spotted some starfish between the rocks including the once-common ochre stars, leather stars, blood stars and bat stars.

Fun fact: the bat star’s body feels like a hard scaly fish! Photo by me

Next up there were the sea cucumbers, which may look harmless and unassuming but if you stress these guys out, beware for they will spew their guts out at you (like a projectile-vomiting kid, watch at your own risk). It was thought that they do this mostly in the name of self-defense, but turns out this is also a method to regenerate their internal organs and get rid of metabolic waste or toxins. To learn more about sea cucumbers, you can watch this fascinating video: https://youtu.be/wXf_YodWw40

Do not make a sea cucumber angry unless you want to get into a rather sticky situation! Photo by me

We also found some of my favourite little creatures around the beach, the sea anemones. These are actually related to jellyfish, meaning they also have stinging cells in their tentacles. Fear not though, we humans have too thick of a skin to be stung by anemones, so it only feels like a soft sticky tube if you ever have an anemone tentacle cling to your finger. Unfortunately to a passing fish or crab, anemones are scary predators because their tentacles can grab onto prey and shoot harpoon-like projections into their body to immobilize them and eat them.

Squish squish lil cutie. Video by me

After trudging around the intertidal zone for a while and identifying everything we could, we made our way back to the dorms and fell into a deep blissful sleep, dreaming about weird and wonderful marine invertebrates. Next time you’re out on a beach, try keeping your eyes peeled for starfish and flipping some rocks over to discover little crabs scurrying away! But make sure you flip the rocks back and return everything to where it originally was, remember to take nothing but memories and leave nothing but footsteps.