Student and professor spend summer researching baby lobsters

September 13, 2011

Summer, lobsters and Cape Cod sound like criteria for a perfect holiday. But vacation was the last thing on the minds of Assistant Professor of Biology Molly Jacobs and her student collaborator Meredith Meyers ’12 during their eight weeks at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researching the swimming behavior of the young Homarus americanus.

While the lobster fishery is extremely important in New England, both culturally and economically, little is known about the distribution and behavior of larval (baby) lobsters, explains Jacobs, who began to study the crustaceans as a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole from 2009 to 2010 before joining the McDaniel faculty last fall.

Female lobsters carry eggs on their abdomens in winter and early spring, then release swimming larvae in June and July. Those larvae develop in the plankton, or water column, for several weeks before settling back to the bottom.

“In that time, where they go and what they do is critically important to adult populations, but these tiny animals in the vast ocean are very difficult to study,” Jacobs says.

Professor and student worked with commercial lobster fishermen to capture egg-bearing female lobsters in late May and early June. They kept these mothers in the laboratory until they released their larvae, then reared the larvae in plastic columns set into a deep tank full of water to mimic ocean conditions.

The pair sought to discover whether vertical positioning in the water column changes as the larvae develop, and how the larvae respond to barriers such as thermoclines — sharp changes in temperature — in the water column. They used copper pipe to set up a thermocline halfway down in the water tank and tracked the position of the larvae with a video camera.

The research involved long hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then back for nighttime experiments from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., and could be wet and dirty work.

“Meredith was a real trooper; she learned more about plumbing, construction, and knot-tying (all critically important skills for marine ecologists!) than she ever expected,” Jacobs says. “She has ended up with a truly impressive senior thesis project.”

Meyers, who is from Machester, Md., also tasted lobster for the first time and, with Jacobs, learned to create a near-perfect lobster roll. A faculty-student collaborator research grant awarded by the College covered the pair’s travel expenses and Meyers’ room and board in student housing, which she shared with undergraduates from other institutions as well as a Duke University grad student.

As part of her research, Meredith Meyers ’12 helped rear lobster larvae in plastic columns set into a deep tank full of water to mimic ocean conditions.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Meyers says. “I finally had a sense that I had a role in giving back to the marine field.”

Since returning to campus, Jacobs and Meyers have been busy analyzing their data; preliminary findings show that larvae do respond to thermoclines by positioning themselves higher up in the water column toward warmer temperatures. They plan to present their work in poster form at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Charleston, S.C.,  and then as a manuscript to submit for publication.