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Maggie Amsler
Research Assistant

Training Time

Journal By Maggie Amsler

Posted On 5/6/2004 2:03:18 PM

Were I back in Alabama right now, I would be enjoying yards of swimming, hours of pedaling and miles of running the streets and trails. My friends, who share this form of play with me, and I do this not only for sheer fun of physical exertion, but to train for a running race or a triathlon. While my buddies are off at the races I continue training. Currently, I am concentrating on fish training. No, this is not some new diving technique. I am training fish for use in laboratory experiments.

Last week our project sponsored the Palmer Station Fishing Derby. The goal was to help us catch a good number of a common fish that we would maintain for use in feeding experiments these last few weeks on station. The angler bringing in the most fish during the 3-day tournament would win the grand prize of a brand new bass boat (yes, that is a whopper of a fish tale!). Just about everybody on station tried their luck dangling a hook and line in the waters surrounding the station in hopes of a nibble or two. Dan (“the Man”) found a rich hole pole-ing up 14 keepers during the tourney. Due to his project association, he was ineligible for any of the exciting prizes and awards. Marge, the station cook, reeled in a record 9 fish, as well as the coveted title of Palmer Station Fisherwoman of the 2004 Winter and a prize of her choice. (She declined the bass boat.) Bravo Marge!

While the casting competition was in full fling, special tanks called the cascade tanks, in the Aquarium Building were being prepared for our new finned residents. This set of 4 rectangular tanks is double-deckered. Seawater flows into the two top tanks and then cascades down through tubing into the pair of bottom tanks. Each tank is divided into 3 compartments with custom-made pvc-frames to which window screening was cabled-tied. Each of the 12 chosen, lucky fish would have their own room. Marge’s last caught fish is in Room # 12. She named him Otis.

Otis is a bottom dwelling fish known scientifically as Notothenia coriiceps and commonly called the black rockcod. Their color patterns are highly variable though with black as well as brown and gray splotches on their back and sides and mustard-yellow tinted fins. These color patterns are an identification bonus for us when one Houdini-like squeezes their broad head and 30 cm (~1 ft) long scaly body through the dividers to visit the next door neighbor. Otis has so far been content to be a home body.

These fish will further our study of defensive chemical compounds that animals like sponges and tunicates may produce. (See Jim’s previous entries). Like the seastars we maintain in a nearby tank, the fish will be taste testers. We will offer the fish specially prepared disks of food and record whether or not the fish eats it. Some of the disks will be treated with extracts derived from a sponge or tunicate of interest. It is sort of like flavoring baked goodies with vanilla or almond extract (chemically derived from the bean or nut) only probably not as good on our taste buds. So we will let the fish guide us to which of the extracts are not palatable or tasty.

But before we get to that crucial part of the experiment, the fish need to be tolerant of their new temporary room, and tolerant of being hand fed. This is where the training comes in. Several times a day, I work with the fish doing the same thing each time. I am training them to recognize them that food is delivered- no searching or shopping necessary. Room service at the Palmer! This food arrives (not in a steaming box, nor on a silver platter) courtesy of a black-gloved hand and is served at the end of a long pair of forceps (just stainless steel, not silver-plate). Initially, the offered food is a freshly thawed limpet. We collect these abundantly common 1-shelled molluscs during shallow dives. They are frozen and when needed thawed briefly in hot water. The animal pulls easily off the shell this way resulting in a limpet steak for each fish. Limpets are related to abalone, which grow much bigger and are I find quite delicious once cooked. The fish had little reluctance to their sushi, snatching the raw limpet steak off the end of the forceps.

The next level of training involves introducing the fish to the artificial food we will use as a base for the extracts. The cookie dough before flavorings added. Our dough is finely ground up krill powder mixed with thickener (alginate- used in people food too!) and cookie cutter-ed into small discs. The discs are then presented to the fish. This is where I get to exercise - my patience primarily. Some of the fish take a great deal of coaxing to try this new fangled food. It is high in protein, just like the limpet and will still keep Otis and pals in zone if they adhere to Adkins! Mikey, in Rm #4 is not a picky eater- ‘Hey, Mikey- he likes it!”

So, my fish training continues. I get my reps in at each feeding session. One set of 12, 3 times a day. I get a good stairmaster workout climbing up and down the ladder to the upper tanks. I also have an endurance workout – just how long can I hold my gloved hand in the cold water without loosing grip on a little krill jello-like disc between the tines of the forceps? I might need some coaching for my training to progress to extract level but in the meantime, I will just keep trying!


TitleFromClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Re: Training Timemary ellen5/7/2004 8:29:20 AM

Ok Maggie, I will truly savor my run this morning. But the next time I hear about a scientific breakthrough benefitting mankind I will think that someone did something like you are right now. Glad there are people like you in the world. Mary Ellen

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 5/7/2004 8:29:20 AM

Good to hear from you again Mary Ellen! Every researcher hopes that their endeavors will yield some kind of scientific breakthrough. It is in part what makes this profession so fun and challenging. As your read in earlier posts on the website, some of our work may indeed benefit mankind in the form of therapeutic drugs derived from Antarctic organisms. The fish experiments we will soon conduct may provide clues as to which organisms produce compounds of such interest. Run happy, Maggie

Re: Training TimeLinda Stude5/7/2004 10:52:48 AM

Wow! Maggie, your posts are so clever and entertaining! Thanks so much for keeping us all informed. I like Otis' smile! Best, Linda

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 5/7/2004 10:52:48 AM

Hi Linda! Thanks for your message. Otis is a sweetie! However, shortly after I posted this entry I went to check on the cascade tanks. Otis made a liar out of me!! He was next door in Rm#11- bad boy! I repaired the breach in the mesh and he has not wandered since. I wonder now what is behind that pleasant smile of his....Cheers, Maggie

Re: Training TimeJean Reed5/7/2004 11:20:29 AM

Thanks so much for e-mailing our class. We have loved thinking about you and following your journal entries. ! It's only 15 more days til we are our for summer. When do you come home? I can't imagine being where you are!
Again, thank you so much for keeping us on the mailing list. You have provided a great education and awareness about the Antarctic for these children. Have a safe trip home. Fondly, Jean Reed

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 5/7/2004 11:20:29 AM

Hello Jean and all of your wonderful second graders. I am so pleased that you have been following our website. It makes me feel like I am still at Edgewood School visiting! Enjoy your last weeks of school and time together. You will probably be on summer vacation by the time I return in late May. Wishing you all a grand summer of adventures. Warm hugs to you and the third-graders to be! Maggie

Re: Training TimeDarrius5/7/2004 1:33:07 PM

Have you done this experiment before? If so, are there sometimes fish that don't adjust to not being free and don't work for your experiment? What do you do with the fish when the experiment is finished?

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 5/7/2004 1:33:07 PM

Hi Darrius! We did an experiment like this with fish 2 years ago. Yes, some fish just do not adjust to the unnatural laboratory environment. Can you blame them! I have already swapped out 2 of the original 12 chosen fish because they would not eat. We don't want to starve fish. Fortunately, we have several fish as alternates swimming about in another tank. When this experiment is over, all the fish will be returned to the ocean. I wrote about that process on our 2001 wesite. Check it out Thank you for your thoughtful questions. Cheers, Maggie

Re: Training TimeStan Newman5/7/2004 10:37:26 PM

Your hands may get cold, but clearly your heart is warm. A question: is there anything special about the fish you are training, or could similar experiments be carried out in what most people would consider a more benign climate?
I'm still hoping to ski with you and Chuck this winter, but I've heard nothing to suggest that Wilderness Lodge will be in operation. Quelle dommage!
Best regards.

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 5/7/2004 10:37:26 PM

Hi Stan! Good question. As yet another blizzard envelopes our little station, I must admit doing this experiment some place warm and sunny would be most welcome! However, for this work to be meaningful in an ecological sense, we need to test the extracts of the various organisms that live here against potential predators that also live here. I could adjust readily to hand feeding coral reef fishes at a marine station in the Caribbean, but it would not further our understanding of why certain organisms living in Antarctica produce chemicals which appear to serve no function in primary life support. It would be impossible to test the hypothesis that something unique to the polar physical and/or biological environment has fostered selection of the particular enzymatic pathways that lead to these chemicals. Warm thoughts (and hands at the moment!), Maggie

Re: Training TimeJim Zerwick5/10/2004 3:05:28 PM

Hello Maggie,
Before you head home I wanted tell you how much I've been enjoying keeping up with your (and Charles') exciting activities way down under. I'm sure your enthusiastic and fascinating journal is helping to motivate many budding future scientists. Thanks for the opportunity to watch a scientist at work.

And I'm looking forward to actually meeting Susan's sister-in-law(s) one of these days (and seeing her brothers again).

Jim Zerwick, Madison WI

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 5/10/2004 3:05:28 PM

What a pleasure to 'meet' you Jim! Oh the wonders of the Internet. Your supportive words are really appreciated. We hope our efforts to share this exciting work and truly unique environment will influence many a scientist-to-be. After all, somebody needs to take over for all us 'old timers' down here! I look forward meeting you in three-D some day soon! warm regards, Maggie

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The researchers completed their expedition in May 2004. Feel free to search this site for their archived journals and responses to questions.

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