I spent most of this past week (ending Sun 27/6) in the micro plastics laboratory conducting filtration of the second turtle (stranded in 2017). This small turtle was found deceased covered in barnacles – this is a sign that the turtle was sick and therefore too weak to fight off the barnacles. The necropsy of this turtle suggests that it died of starvation because there was nothing but bile found in its stomach or intestines. I aided Dr. Guido Pietroluongo (marine mammal supervisor) in the dissection and sampling of this sea turtle therefore I was able to see the empty stomach and intestines.
As per the protocol, the samples were placed in hyper saline solution to separate the lighter plastics from the organic matter. However, with this sea turtle there was a lot of stomach and intestine lining that was a similar density to the plastics; therefore the filtration of these samples took a very long time because some of the organic matter was blocking the filter paper. Megan spent Monday and Tuesday evening doing filtration so that we could finish the filtration of this last turtle by the end of the week.
We have two filtration pumps in the laboratory but there are three different micro plastics projects happening at this time. Therefore we meet each Monday to organize a timetable of the filtration units and the microscope room. On Tuesday morning the two other students who are conducting their master’s dissertations here were using the filtration units. Therefore, I went out on the kayak to collect surface samples for my future micro plastic project. Unfortunately though the GPS was being problematic and the wind had picked up a lot. The waves became very large as we kayaked a little further out, and we got soaking wet. The sea state was not ideal for collection of surface samples because the waves were so large. Therefore, we decided to come back in after about twenty minutes. The wind did not really calm down over the course of the week so we did not go out on the kayaks any other day.
The images below were taken by the media team on the first sampling that I did in the previous week. In the front is Loutje who works with the GPS points – she records the time and GPS coordinates at the beginning of the transect whilst I place the plankton net in the water behind the kayak. We then kayak along the transect for about 10-15 minutes at a constant speed. We follow landmarks to mark the ends of the transects and then I pull the net out of the water whilst Loutje records the GPS coordinates and time. Distilled water is then used to rinse the contents of the net into the end piece. At the end of the net is a collecting piece (cod end) that is screwed off and rinsed into the sample jar. The cleaned cod end is then screwed back onto the net and the net placed into the water as we begin kayaking the next transect.
For the next three days of the week, I was in and out of the laboratory as we were conducting filtration of the turtle samples. We finished the filtration for our entire project on Friday morning!
My sister is visiting so I took Friday afternoon off to go explore the nearby town, Pythagorio.
This is a relatively new field and there is still a great deal of micro plastic research that is required in order to obtain an extensive understanding of the presence of micro plastics in the world’s oceans and lakes. The methods for micro plastic analysis are continuously being developed and there is not yet a standardized method for separation of micro plastics from organic matter. Therefore any new research conducted using any method will be an important addition to the literature. I am therefore very excited to be contributing to this new and ever-changing area of research.
Micro plastic research at Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation
The field research laboratory here at Archipelagos is relatively simple in comparison to a university style laboratory. This is due to the lab being situated on a small island with limited resources. However, in this simpler lab I am able to completely understand and appreciate each process that is carried out. I began my internship by reading many past scientific papers on micro plastic research in order to understand the field, and I also practiced micro plastic analysis. In this laboratory, we use the ‘hot needle test’ – the sample is viewed under a microscope, and then a needle held by grip scissors is brought close to any materials that are present. If the objects ‘dance’/jump, then the material could be plastic. The needle is then heated and if the needle melts the material then it can be determined confidently as plastic. This is a relatively simple test that allows the detection of micro plastics. Some samples from specific projects are sent back to the US or UK for further detailed analysis as well.
It is extremely important to prevent contamination in the laboratory. Therefore no plastics are worn in the laboratory and plastic gloves are only used when handling the organic matter in a dissection or when handling chemicals. Lab coats are always worn and all of the windows are kept closed to prevent excess contamination.
My role in the micro plastics team
Currently I am working alongside one other student, Megan Kelly, and we are analyzing the gastro intestinal tract of two different loggerhead sea turtles that were found stranded and dead. I arrived to Archipelagos when Megan was in the process of writing the protocol for the analysis for these turtles. Therefore I have been doing a great deal of research on different protocols for the micro plastic analysis of sea turtles and other organisms in order to gain an understanding of the topic and to contribute any new found ideas. We begun the laboratory work on the 31st June and since then we have been carrying out the processes that will enable us to analyze the contents of the gastrointestinal tracts of two turtles. These two turtles were stranded in the same area 7 years apart. Therefore, the analysis of each turtle could provide an indicator of micro plastic ingestion by turtles in the recent years compared to seven years ago.
I will be finishing the analysis of the sea turtles in the next two weeks, and then I will be aiding Megan to write the final report. In addition, I have begun a new micro plastic project this week (12th June) that I will continue until I finish my three-month internship at Archipelagos Institute. I will be taking surface samples off the southeast coast of Samos Island in order to study the long-term presence of macro plastic and micro plastic content in three different transects. This study will last one year therefore I will hand it over to another intern before I leave Archipelagos. I will do weekly or bi-weekly trawls in a kayak with a plankton net attached behind that will capture sea surface samples. The majority of plastics tend to float in seawater therefore surface samples are a reliable indicator to the presence of micro and macro plastics. This information will provide an indicator as to whether the presence of plastics in these specific transects changes over one year. Additionally, the difference in plastics presence with changing winds and currents will be observed. I am very enthusiastic about the kayak sampling method because it is a project that I will be taking the lead on, and the samples will be sent back to the US with Juliette Humer (Micro plastics team supervisor) for further analysis as a part of her final thesis.
My first week with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation is a good representation of the type of experience that one can have while working here at this organization. It is a melting pot of different students, graduates, and supervisors who devote their time to projects that research, protect or conserve parts of the Aegean Sea. Today there are about forty team members from about 20 different countries that are a part of the Archipelagos team here in Samos island and on two nearby islands, Lipsi and Leros.
I spent my first working morning in the microplastics laboratory practicing microplastic analysis of past samples. I was introduced to the protocols of the laboratory, and I read the protocols of the two different projects that were in the process at that time. Over the next few days I then read a large number of papers on the topic of micro plastic analysis in order to become familiar with the different processes.
That night I went for a midnight swim with a few other people and there was bioluminescent plankton in the water around us! It was a good introduction to the Aegean Sea.
The next day I helped the marine conservation team to install the artificial reef that they had built. I was a snorkeling aid and with a few other people we swam the reef out to the installation site about 100m off the shore. It was very interesting and educational to be practically involved with this installation and it was obviously great to spend working hours swimming in crystal blue water! This team has now installed four different types of artificial reefs about 100m from the shore in front of the main base. The reefs are monitored a few times a week at varying times in order to assess if the reefs provide a significant habitat for fish and other marine organisms. This is an experiment on the success of the different artificial reefs, and the end goal is to install many artificial reefs on Lipsi Island where Archipelagos is preparing a natural sanctuary for the release of captured dolphins and seals back into the oceans.
I was fortunate enough to spend the next morning on a boat survey for marine mammals. We left the marina in the morning and followed a specific transect to survey for dolphins. There were four people with binoculars each surveying a quarter of the area around us. We had hardly left the marina, and one person spotted a feeding frenzy with birds and dolphins. It was a pod of about 15 – 20 common dolphins (D. delphis). The boat went closer to the pod in order to monitor their behavior, and the dolphins began boat riding. It was a magical experience to watch the behavior of so many dolphins from such a short distance.
Looking back and reflecting on my first week has made me even more enthusiastic about the upcoming months and all of the experience that I can have if I truly grasp each opportunity that comes my way!