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Why would you wade into scientific mysteries at UC Davis?

A vanishing marsh mouse in the Suisun Marsh? 

Declining native oysters in Bodega Bay?

Or taking a makeshift raft into a Massachusetts estuary to figure out the secret to “pink berries”?

That’s the draw for ecologists Jillian Bible and Katherine Smith and microbiogist Lizzie Wilbanks. Watch and read what it’s like to be in their shoes.

  • Sunrise over the Suisun Marsh

    Every month we trap salt marsh harvest mice at all of our three sites in the Suisun Marsh, starting just before sunrise. We get the mice out of the traps before they become solar ovens. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • We use aluminum live traps baited with bird seed and ground walnuts. Traps are placed on the ground where there is no risk of flooding, a meter up in thick rushes and reeds, or on floating debris as shown in this photo. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Woman standing on marsh edge checking a box

    Traps must be checked very carefully as these mice can hide in the cotton bedding or in the mechanisms of the trap. (Alyssa Manness/UC Davis photo)

  • Mouse in container with seeds

    The first thing we do is empty the trap into a bucket to observe behavior. Salt marsh harvest mice are much more docile than the Western harvest mice that also live in the marsh. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Mouse on hand

    Mice are individually marked using ear tags. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Mouse being measured on a ruler

    A number of measurements are taken to assess age, health and reproductive status as well as differentiate salt marsh harvest mice from Western harvest mice. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Person measuring the tail of a dangling mouse dangling

    Tail diameter measurement helps differentiate the two species of mice. It can also help us to assess how healthy the mice are by examining differences in body-fat stores. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Woman in a hood holding a mouse

    Before being released, mice are photographed to catalog visual differences between the species. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Mouse on dead branch

    Once mice are released, we observe their behavior as they scurry back to their homes. Here a mouse uses her semiprehensile tail to cling to a dead branch before climbing down. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Collar being tied onto a mouse's neck

    Radio telemetry collars are fitted without anesthesia on the largest mice, a formidable task on these tiny, delicate animals. (Carlos Alvarado/UC Davis photo)

  • Mouse with collar being held by its tail

    Once collared, they are released at the site of capture. Radio telemetry studies occur during several weeks each spring, summer, fall and winter. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Woman standing with a wire device listening to a phone

    The crew uses radio telemetry receivers to track the movements of the mice. The signal from the collars can be detected between 50 and 100 meters away. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Two women in waders in a marsh with a radio wire device

    We can use our antennas to “home in” on mice or triangulate to estimate locations from afar, allowing us to track mice even when they are areas flooded by the high tide.(Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Sunset view of the Suisun Marsh

    Traps remain closed during the day, and at sunset we open them up again. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Three people in camoflage at the marsh with a number of white buckets

    During quarterly diet studies, traps are checked well before sunrise. Captured mice are placed into the feeding arena, a bucket offering a number of food items. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • A series of eight  photos showing bowls of mice foods

    In the open diet study, food items are placed in a field platform so mice can come and go freely. In the closed study, mice are placed into a bucket with the food items. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • This is what the feed arenas of the closed diet study look like in the morning. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

  • Sunset in the Suisun Marsh

    Our mouse research will help wildlife managers learn how protect this beautiful ecosystem for generations to come. (Katherine Smith/UC Davis photo)

Marsh mouse solving habitat mysteries

By Katherine Smith, Ecology

My research is helping save the only mammal in the world restricted to coastal marshes and found only in the San Francisco Bay — the salt marsh harvest mouse. This mouse is endangered due to habitat loss. 

By performing my research in a variety of habitat types, I hope to identify methods for improving multispecies management in this complex system. 

Through monthly trapping, I’m learning important information such as how long can these rodents live, or in what months do they breed.  I am also performing a study to determine what diet preferences they share with waterfowl. I use radio telemetry to examine their movements, home ranges and habitat use.

Threats like climate change will continue to imperil marsh species like these mice.  I want to help government agencies save this awesome endangered species by increasing the understanding of its biology, ecology and behavior.

Conserving the Olympia oyster

Jill Bible shows equipment that she uses to nurture the young oysters

Videography by Zak Long/University of California
(1 min 42 sec)

Olympia oysters — the ‘canary’ in the estuary?

By Jillian Bible, Ecology

I chose to conduct research that would not only document how humans are impacting marine ecosystems but also provide information to help conserve and restore an important species, the Olympia oyster.

This is the only oyster that occurs naturally on the West Coast of North America, and it is a critical species in estuaries. I am investigating whether different populations of this species might be more or less vulnerable to oceanic changes caused by humans.

Specifically, I am investigating whether changes — such as warming waters, changes in salinity, ocean acidification, and the introduction of invasive predators — affect their vulnerablity.

Besides doing my research, one of my strongest passions is communicating it — and science in general — to broad audiences. I love sharing the magic of science with learners of all ages and helping people to understand some of today’s pressing problems and the ways in which science can inform solutions.

  • A plywood raft in a marsh

    A home-made research raft sets sail in Sippewissett marsh. (All photos by Lizzy Wilbanks and Victoria Orphan/UC Davis)

  • Equipment in a marsh

    Geochemistry microsensor equipment is set up in the marsh.

  • Our research team heads into the Sippewissett to take measurements.

  • Lizzie Wilbanks holding a skewer with pink berries on them

    Pink berries are skewered on silver wire to collect internal sulfide.

  • Equipment on a coil settling on a wire grid

    This custom-made microsensor is used for measuring chemicals inside pink berries.

  • Pink berries on a skewer on a ruler-like measuring device

    Pink berries are measured after overnight incubation on silver wires.

  • A series of tubes stuck into marsh sediment

    Here's how we collect sediment cores in the Sippewissett marsh.

  • Lizzie Wilbanks in the grass near the marsh

    Here I am, in the marsh, checking out another possible sampling site.

The secret lives of marsh microbes

By Lizzy Wilbanks, Microbiology

I study “pink berries”— centimeter-sized, round, pink balls of bacteria found at the sediment-water interface of intertidal pools in the Sippewissett salt marsh in Falmouth, Mass.

Although these mysterious bacteria have not been grown in the laboratory, I’ve been able to eavesdrop on the metabolic “conversations” between these microbes using cutting-edge technology.

My work has revealed a previously unrecognized partnership between two sulfur-metabolizing bacterial species. Using methods borrowed from the field of geology, I have visualized this as an intimate cooperation on a nanometer scale and shown how nutrients (specifically sulfur) are recycled within the pink berry aggregates.

I have assembled genomes for the pink berry microbes, clarifying the pathways that drive their metabolism.

My work has added to our understanding nutrient cycling in the Sippewissett marsh and provided a model system for studying nutrient cycles at the microbial scale. 

Keep up with Lizzy’s research on her lab Web page, on Twitter @LizzyWilbanks (all science all the time) or through a recent project publication.

Salt marsh harvest mouse on a ruler. UC Davis home page photo by Katherine Smith


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