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Seaweek 2011: Spotlight on Marine Science

Marine Scientist Profile:

Who am I?
My name is Elvira Poloczanska and I am a marine climate change ecologist which means I study how marine animals and plants respond to changes in climate.

I work for and my work / research involves:
I work for CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. My work is very varied. For my research I need to understand how ocean climate has changed in the recent past or may change in the future. The changes in our oceans varies depending where you are in the world, in some parts the oceans are getting warmer and saltier while in other regions the ocean is cooling. I study how animals and plants in our oceans respond to these changes in climate in two ways. Firstly, I look at animals and plants, such as barnacles, snails and seaweed on rocky shores and the species present. I count their numbers so we can see how these change with temperature. Secondly, I use this information, together with the information on temperature, to build mathematical models of virtual populations. The mathematical models allow me to explore what happens to the populations of animals and plants when I change temperature. We can use these models to predict what our marine systems might look like after 50 or 100 years of global warming.

I also research how recent climate change has impacted marine plants and animals in all the oceans around the world. To do this I work with scientists from the USA, Europe and Australia. We review all the work that other climate change ecologists have published and record all observations of climate change impacts in a database. Once we have finished we will have a big picture of how marine plants and animals have responded to climate change in all the oceans. We will also know where they are not responding and regions where we haven’t looked for responses.

How does my work relate to marine conservation?
My work is important for marine conservation as it highlights regions or species that may be particularly vulnerable to climate change. Conservation managers need to know how species and ecosystems will respond to climate change so they can be prepared for the changes and make decisions which will be of benefit now and in the future.

Things I like about my job:
I like that I am a part of a global community of scientists all studying climate change and marine biology. This means that there is always someone, somewhere in the world, that I can ask for advice. It is very exciting when scientists from different countries get together as you come away with new ideas for your work.

I usually like doing field work as you get to spend time in some beautiful places and see interesting animals and plants. The times I don’t like fieldwork is when it is very cold and raining but we have to do the work to get the information we need.

I enjoy playing with numbers. People think mathematical modelling is scary or difficult but it isn’t. We can all do maths and have PCs to help us! It’s a nice feeling of achievement when you get a model working or produce the results that you hoped for, or find surprising results that you weren’t expecting.

What inspired you to consider a career in marine science?
I’m not sure why I became a marine scientist! I’ve always been interested in science but when I was at school I wasn’t sure which type of scientist I’d be. I studied English, mathematics, chemistry and biology so I could choose which science degree to take when I went to university. It turned out that I was best at maths and biology!

Do you have a favourite marine creature (if so why)?
My favourite animal is definitely the barnacle. Most people who go to the beach ignore the barnacles on the rocks and don’t realise what amazing animals they are. Do you know that barnacles are marine crustaceans? They are related to crabs and lobsters. They lie on their backs in their shells and catch food from the water column using their legs.
The intertidal barnacles, that is barnacles that live between high and low water marks on the shore, live in an extremely challenging environment. When the tide is out during the day, the temperature of the rocks can soar to 40 or 50°C or more in a very short time. When the tide is in, the temperature can drop to 10-20°C. And this happens every day! Imagine having to move between a cold bath and a hot oven every 6 hours……

Barnacles may be small but they can cause us big, expensive problems. Barnacles living attached to the outside of ships and boats can reduce the speed at which these travel by increasing friction with the water and increase the amount of fuel used by the ship. We spend a lot of money trying to remove barnacles from ships or designing special coatings that make it difficult for barnacles to attach.

Next time you go to the beach, take some time to look at barnacles on the rocks. If you watch the barnacles in rockpools you may even see them feeding. You’ll be in very good company. Charles Darwin spent 8 years of his life studying and writing a book about barnacles ( A Monograph of the Cirripedia by Charles Darwin 1854). Studying barnacles also helped him develop his ideas about how different species are related.

 

 


Elvira taking photographs of barnacles to
analyse back in the laboratory


Elvira Poloczanska and Alistair Hobday being
interviewed by the press about their work


Counting barnacles on the shore


Elvira working in the field


Elvira and colleagues being nominated for an Australian
Museum Eureka Prize for science (we didn't win!)

     
 

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