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You are here: /main/research expeditions/August/September 2007/Tagging sharks

Interview with Dr. Stephen Karl and HIMB Researchers
by Carlie Wiener

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Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Drkarl 440
Dr. Stephen Karl – Associate Researcher, HIMB

Dr. Karl began his scientific adventurer as a child with a keen interest in animals and the ocean. Vacations to Cape Cod peeked his curiosity while spending time at the beach and tide pools. Dr. Karl’s background as an ecologist led him to the study of genetics, satisfying his interest to answer evolutionary questions. He has worked with many different species including water snakes, seals, plants, tortoises and corals. Evolutionary biology is his primary interest, particularly looking at how organisms and their ecosystem evolve.

Role on the research trip
This is Dr. Karl’s second expedition to the Monument, and will be continuing his work on patch reefs at French Frigate Shoals and Pearl and Hermes Atoll. It is hoped that his work will be able to answer basic questions about coral function and their unique ecosystem. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provide an interesting site to research because of its isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Karl will sample the coral while on the trip, documenting specific patch reefs with his research team. The work is very challenging as the scientists are out in the field all day and usually take the evening to complete lab work such as entering data or processing samples.

Favorite part about being at sea
Dr. Karl enjoys the good eating on the ship and ship life in general. The rolling action of the boat is calming to him and finds being surrounded by water to affect him positively.

What they are doing
Dr.Karl’s work is very important and the first of its kind. By looking at the question of dispersal, it is hoped that the researchers will be able to understand coral connectivity. This will have huge management implications in understanding if coral reefs are made up of single clones or hold a vast amount of genetic diversity. With this type of work, the scientists will not know anything until they go back to the lab and work with the DNA from the samples. The group will consider this a successful trip if they get to look at the entire patch reef. The samples are collected in a very organized manner with teams diving along a transect line. This is a line that they measure the coral from in order to generate an x/y coordinates for mapping. An underwater GPS is used for increased accuracy as well. The diving team will work in four stages, with the first person marking corals to sample with a weighted flag. The second scientific diver will go along the transect line taking pictures at each flagged coral. This will help to individually identify each coral and relate it to the sample collection. The third participant will measure where the coral is on the transect line, and the fourth person will take a small sample. This will provide a detailed collection of coral for one patch reef, allowing for further analysis.

Once the scientists bring the samples back to the lab they need to extract the DNA out of the cell. Specific locations, or genes, in the DNA are analyzed. Eight to ten genes are screened and a DNA fingerprint is revealed. This allows the scientists to genetically identify every unique individual in the sample. This is how you can detect if the corals came from the same coral originally. If some of the individuals are identical at a few of the genes, then a statistical analysis can be done to identify how related the individuals are to each other (e.g., siblings, cousins, unrelated, etc.). Once the DNA analysis is completed, the scientists look at how the individuals are placed on the patch reef, looking at their DNA makeup and how they are related spatially.

What they hope to find
The science team would like to get a comprehensive sampling of corals on a single patch reef, to be able to spatially understand relatedness based on DNA makeup. If Dr. Karl and his team can understand how genetically related an entire reef is then they can get a greater  understanding of  how many corals come from in or outside the reef, essentially if the reef has an open or closed population. The research will also be able to give managers a better understanding of variation amongst the reef. This is important as corals vary in their resistance to disease, morphology and color. Currently, scientist are trying to find out how much of these characteristics are genetic as very little is known.

How the science helps to inform Management
This research will give an idea of where coral offspring settle when parent corals spawn. It is still unknown as to whether they settle close or far away from the coral. The research will be able to tell us something about how we should be protecting corals, whether we need small or large reserve areas to help preserve genetic diversity. The same studies are also occurring in Kaneohe Bay, allowing scientists to compare patch reefs in the main Hawaiian Islands to those in the Monument. By using different locations, it will give Dr. Karl a better idea of how applicable the results are. By DNA fingerprinting, the scientists will be able to see if the genetic relatedness is correlated with the health of the coral. The research will help managers to understand the connectivity of corals on a reef and how much diversity there is within a species, as well as between. This research has never been done before at such a micro spatial scale (small and detailed level).

Dr. Jill Zamzow – Volunteer Diver

Dr. Zamzow has long been interested in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. She first tried to go to Turn Island for a volunteer turtle project but was hired as the state research coordinator for the Monument.  She has been twice already to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and fell in love with the place. Dr. Zamzow is enthralled by the untouched system where top predators are intact. She loves that the fish are not afraid of you which according to her, “is a nice change from the more skittish populations in the main Hawaii Islands”.  Dr. Zamzow has been diving since 1991, starting in cold water and then moving tropical. Her research interests are in fish behavior. After 12 years in Hawaii, Jill will be moving on later in the year to do postdoctoral work at Palmer Station in Antarctica.

Role on the research trip
Dr. Zamzow will be assisting with Dr. Stephen Karl’s research. She is excited about working with corals, something she does not normally do. Dr. Zamzow is also eager about the data which will come out of the research. She states that “the research is very exciting; it is a very innovative and new idea. Interrelatedness and dispersal assumptions will hopefully be further understood through Dr. Karl’s work”.

Favorite part about being at sea
Dr. Zamzow enjoys being in the outdoors, and that she is more aware of her surroundings while in the Monument. She states that she is more aware of the weather, and more connected to the environment. Dr. Zamzow is also pleased with the ship crew, “they do such a good job of taking care of everything, that way you can totally devote yourself to the research”.


Kelvin Gorospe – PhD Student, HIMB

Kelvin’s interest in marine biology began with a trip to the Philippians on a Fulbright scholarship following his undergraduate degree. While aboard, Kelvin saw a need for science in conservation management, “I used to think environmental concerns were a worry of the privileged, but after working in the Philippians I realized that this is not the case”. Kelvin expands on the need for pristine resources for livelihoods, and unfortunately most of the conservation work in the Philippians has not been based on sound science. Kelvin is beginning his PhD research in the hopes that one day he can go back to the Philippians to help. He would like to link research to small scale development projects.

Role on the research trip
This is Kelvin’s first time working on the Hi‘ialakai. He is excited to be on this expedition to carry out his research and experience unique species in their natural environment. He will be working with Dr. Stephen Karl collecting coral samples for DNA testing. The team of scientist will be sampling an entire patch reef including each coral within the reef to see how they are related (i.e.) clones, unrelated random colonies, or partially related.

Favorite part about being at sea
Kelvin’s favorite part about being at sea is being able to dive. He never dreamt he would have had the opportunity to work in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and finds working out in the open ocean a humbling experience.

Jennifer Schultz – PhD student, HIMB

Jennifer’s interest in marine biology began with a high school field trip which took her on a boat trip to the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Her interest in marine biology was further fostered in Charleston, North Carolina where she completed her undergraduate degree. Jennifer also participated in some forensic science and population genetics work. Jennifer came to Hawaii four years ago and began working with the National Marine Fisheries Service looking at Hawaiian monk seal population management, working with tissue samples. She is currently conducting her PhD work at the University of Hawaii, with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the National Marine Fisheries Service looking at the evolution of mating systems with the Hawaiian monk seal. This entails looking at female preferences of sneaker or dominant males for mates. Jennifer is particularly interested in both evolutionary and conservation biology, and looks forward to carrying out her work on seal evolutionary biology on other populations around the globe in the future.

Role on the research trip
This is Jennifer’s second time working on the Hi‘ialakai ship. She is excited to be on this expedition as she really enjoys the field work. Last year she worked with Dr. Stephen Karl collecting coral samples for DNA testing, and will continue the same work on this research mission. The team of scientist will be sampling an entire patch reef including each coral within the reef to see how they are related (i.e.) clones, unrelated random colonies, or partially related.

Favorite part about being at sea
Jennifer’s favorite part about being out at sea is being able to see all the life underwater, and diving.


Danielle Jaywardene – HIMB

Danielle gained an interest in the ocean at 15, when she participated in her first dive. She is not only interested in marine science but conservation biology as well. Danielle obtainer her undergraduate degree in biological sciences in London, England and has also worked in a lab in Sweden. She is currently finishing up her PhD with the University of Hawaii looking at coral reef ecology and how effective marine protected areas are in enhancing coral health.

Role on the research trip
This is Danielle’s first time working on the Hi‘ialakai. She is excited to be on this expedition to help tag large predators such as sharks and jacks, as well as sample coral on patch reefs. She will be working with Dr. Stephen Karl collecting coral samples for DNA testing. The team of scientist will be sampling an entire patch reef including each coral within the reef to see how they are related (i.e.) clones, unrelated random colonies, or partially related. Danielle will also tag predators in order to identify their movement patterns with Dr. Meyer.

Favorite part about being at sea
Being away from it all, in the vast ocean.

Michelle Gaither – PhD student, HIMB

As a child, Michelle wanted to work in the marine realm. Growing up in the Bay area she was interested in marine mega fauna such as dolphins and whales. Her interests grew beyond those species completing a biology decree from University of California Berkley. Michelle traveled all the way to Guam to complete her masters on coral physiology, working in the fisheries field. She has spent the first two years in Hawaii working on her PhD on fish genetics specifically looking at taape. Her work is focused on being able to understand invasive species and how they can impact an ecosystem through dispersal. This is Michelle’s first trip to the Monument but has been on many research and fishing boats before. Michelle’s diverse background has allowed her to explore the many aspects of biology which she enjoys.

Role on the research trip
Michelle is working with Dr. Stephen Karl and the rest of the team to map a patch reef, looking at coral relatedness on a micro scale. She is most interested in the potential to discover recruitment on a reef, and looking at this question from a genetics standpoint. Michelle is enjoying diving on an ecosystem not spoiled by people, and seeing one of the few last predator dominated ecosystems. She also hopes to get some fish samples, specifically taape to examine their movement and a particular parasite that is seen in this introduced fish. What is unique about the taape is that scientists know where the non-native fish came from, when it was brought and how it was spread.

Favorite part about being at sea
Michelle enjoys waking up and not knowing what she is going to see, birds, fish or a different sunset. She enjoys being part of such a dynamic environment.

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