Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre has a magnetism that draws researchers in, and often, like the tides that lap its shores, draws them back again and again. BMSC is known for its science, but many speak of the place with an almost magical sense of reverence and awe. Researchers often share similar stories: initial brief visits to the site as high school or undergraduate students that inspire later work at BMSC across an entire career.
Over 50 years, research at Bamfield Marine Science Centre has produced thousands of scientific papers, reports, collaborations, and ideas that have expanded our knowledge of the sea and its immense value to people, our planet, and biodiversity. Over the years, BMSC has transitioned from a seasonal field station to a year-round internationally sought-after location due to its access to unique and special marine environments. Here, we spotlight a selection of these weird and wonderful findings and breakthroughs with global repercussions.
Em Lim remembers arriving at BMSC for the first time on an undergraduate field trip. Recalling their group’s first impression of the breathtaking view overlooking Barkley Sound, “everyone was standing together, their mouths on the floor,” says Lim, now doing PhD research at BMSC.
Tao Eastham, BMSC Head of Research Services, first visited in 2004 on an undergraduate field trip. During the first hour of that visit, while touring labs, Eastham remembers seeing students surrounded by scales and beakers, listening to music while cutting up algae. Laughing and having fun, “They were doing science in a way that I had never seen science done before,” says Eastham. “I instantly fell in love with this place,” he says.
Over 50 years, research at Bamfield Marine Science Centre has spawned hundreds of scientific papers, reports, collaborations, and ideas that have expanded our knowledge of the sea and its immense value to people, our planet, and biodiversity.
Highlighting all of the BMSC discoveries worthy of mention is an impossible task. But in sifting the decades for a sampling of BMSC’s gifts of knowledge, we spotlight a selection of these weird and wonderful findings and breakthroughs.
1. Sponges are no slouches
With at least 5000 described species, sea sponges are considered one of the world’s simplest multi-cellular organisms. But work at BMSC has shown they are not as “simple” as once thought. “Sponges aren’t just sitting there letting water flow through them. They pump the water actively, and they can turn the pumping mechanism on and off,” says George Mackie[i]. He first came to Bamfield in the 1960s as a University of Alberta representative on the search committee tasked with finding the setting for a Western Canadian marine research station. Relocating to the University of Victoria to be closer to the sea, Mackie’s research showed sponges were not just passive but had a conduction system. He considers that finding the most important work of his career. With his graduate student Sally Leys, Mackie demonstrated that though lacking a nervous system, sponges produce their stop-start feeding currents with electrical impulses.
Many of the students Mackie mentored, like Leys[ii], are now professors themselves. At the University of Alberta, Leys still has a passion for sponges. Continuing to probe sponge mysteries, in 2014, Ley’s graduate student Danielle Ludeman[iii] captured sponge sneezing on camera. And examining fossils, Ley’s graduate student Pablo Aragonés Suarez has traced the sponge pump back millions of years[iv]. Invertebrate physiology was also the realm of University of Calgary Emeritus Professor George Bourne, who studied the cardiac and circulatory systems of crustaceans and molluscs at BMSC.
2. Hardy hagfish and biomaterials
Hagfish are “charismatically ugly,” says University of Alberta professor of physiology Greg Goss. At the junction between vertebrates and invertebrates, they have a variety of traits characteristic of both. Hagfish have an unusual way of making a living. “They are the first responders when an animal dies,” says Goss. When encountering a dead animal like a whale or seal carcass, they burrow inside. As the carcass putrefies, they live within it, in an incredibly hostile environment of high ammonia and low oxygen that would kill most other life[v]. To study these ocean cleaners, researchers recreate that toxic environment in the lab to study the mechanisms enabling their physiological tolerance. Another hagfish avenue of research is their unusual defensive excretion. “If you put them in a five-gallon bucket with one fish and stir them up for five seconds, you’ll have a whole bucket full of slime,” Goss says. Chris Glover (University of Canterbury, NZ), Tamzin Blewett (U of A), and Chris Wood (UBC) found that hagfish slime acts as a selective filter allowing key nutrients to pass through the skin while preventing flow-through of trace elements toxic at high levels. Hagfish slime may help humans too. Working at BMSC, researchers Atsuko Negishi, Clare Armstrong, Laurent Kreplak, Maikel Rheinstadter, Loong-Tak Lim, Todd Gillis, and Douglas Fudge (University of Guelph) showed[vi][vii] that hagfish slime has super strong properties a bit like spider silk and Kevlar[viii], and may have a future as a high-performance material.
3. Kelp me
Canadian kelp biologist Louis Druehl was Simon Fraser University’s member of the 1960s search team that decided on Bamfield as the site for a Western Canadian marine station. Throughout its history, says Druehl, “This place had a very strong kelp focus.” Kelp research at BMSC achieved all kinds of firsts. “We discovered that kelp were protists, not plants,” he says, and “we discovered that kelp are not ancient, but they’re modern.” Druehl started studying kelp genetics to understand kelp taxonomy, noting that researchers from Korea, Japan and all over North America came to BMSC for kelp genetics training. Others too, like UBC’s Samuel Starko, Marybel Soto Gomez, Hayley Darby, Kyle Demes, Sandra Lindstrom, Patrick Keeling, Sean Graham, and Patrick Martone, collaborating with Hiroshi Kawai (Kobe University, Japan) and Norishige Yotsukura (Hokkaido University, Japan) have updated kelp’s evolutionary family tree.[ix]
Now retired, Druehl, with Rae Hopkins, runs Canadian Kelp Resources, a spin-off from their research. On the BMSC property, Cascadia Seaweed is another seaweed producing company with close links to BMSC. Kelp is a hot topic these days, explains Druehl, with much interest in commercialization. “People think it can solve all of our problems,” he says, noting kelp can be a feedstock for plastics, shows promise as a biofuel, sequesters lots of carbon, can clean up metal pollution, and, as a bonus, he says, “it tastes great.”
In June 2021, BMSC launched the Kelp Rescue Initiative as an effort to address the decline of many BC kelp species. Conducting translational research, the initiative seeks solutions for scalable kelp forest restoration. This is BMSC’s fastest growing area of research.
Kelp is not the only seafood that BMSC research benefits. It’s also supported research on abalone and salmon.
4. Herring farts and whale bubbles
In parts of the Pacific ocean, including along the BC coast, herring school in such vast numbers they are visible from space. That makes them an important food fish not just for humans but for creatures like humpback whales. It’s unclear why, but research on herring caught off Vancouver Island and held in tanks at BMSC looked at how this schooling fish produce sounds by bubble expulsion from the anal duct region. Ben Wilson (BMSC), Robert Batty (Scottish Association for Marine Science), and Larry Dill (SFU) named these sounds Fast Repetitive Ticks (FRTs), perhaps to see how close they could get to saying fart in a scientific paper. The work earned them a 2004 Ig Nobel prize. In 1997, with graduate student Fred Sharpe, Dill conducted another experiment BMSC to test how the bubble nets produced by feeding humpback whales work in confusing and corralling their prey. [x]
5. Marine engineering and fluid dynamics
Researchers from across Canada and beyond have used BMSC’s Fluid Dynamics Lab, housing one of Canada’s largest flumes. Alberto Aliseda, Hannah Ross and Brian Polagye of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle are three of the many scientists that have used the lab to test, develop and improve turbine performance. Their work in hydrodynamics has applications for marine renewable energy like tidal and wave power.
7. Sexy sea urchins
For over 30 years, Don Levitan, now at the University of Florida, has spent summers at Bamfield studying the reproductive ecology of red sea urchins. His work on urchin gametes, which are broadcast into the water, has focused on the likelihood of fertilization, how new species are formed, sex differences in spawning behaviour, gamete recognition proteins, sperm swimming speed and why it matters[xi], whether eggs are choosy in what sperm they bind with (spoiler alert: they are), cross-species hybridization, plus a whole host of other sexy evolutionary questions.
Questions of a different sort surrounded sea urchins harvested by 2016 BMSC Scientific Diving students in waters around Bamfield for study in BMSC labs. Commonly applied lab protocols had traditionally not permitted returning urchins to the wild after several days in captivity because the assumption was “they might forget certain skills,” explains Aneesh Bose. Currently a postdoc at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Bose was the lead author of this group of students who wanted to formally explore why, under the encouragement of their course instructor, SFU marine conservation ecologist Isabelle Côté. Was this ‘can’t put them back’ rule really necessary? Did short-term handling really hamper these critters long-term? They took advantage of at least twice daily dives and experimented to find out. They discovered that short-term captivity does not cause detrimental effects on the post-release behaviour of wild-caught red sea urchins, at least for the behaviours they tested. The experiment was a cool and unusual thing to do on a student course, says Bose, but “Bamfield’s location made this possible,” noting the published [xii] study has implications for conservation efforts like translocation and restoration of depleted species.
“Trying to understand how organisms sense their environment, how they respond to change,” is one of the central ideas that runs through BMSC research, says Sean Rogers, BMSC’s current director based at the University of Calgary. Evolutionary, ecological, physiological, species and climatic changes have been the focus of decades of research at BMSC.
University of Alberta evolutionary biologist Rich Palmer’s decades of research at BMSC has focused on developmental plasticity, how animals change form during their lifetime when environmental conditions change. He and collaborators discovered that snails change the form of their shells when they smell a shell-breaking predator[xiii]; that crabs change their claws when on different diets[xiv]; that barnacles grow longer legs when living in still versus moving water; that barnacle penis size can grow longer or shorter in different wave conditions[xv]; and that sea stars change shape depending on wave action. Working with Alexandra Eaves, Palmer discovered that sea urchin, sea cucumber and sand dollar larvae can spontaneously clone themselves.
University of Alberta’s Tamzin Blewett worked with Chris Wood (McMaster / UBC), Chris Glover, Sandra Fehsenfeld, Michael Lawrence, Som Niyogibe, and Greg Goss to study the toxic effects of nickel on green shore crabs, a species Em Lim calls “a pretty notorious big bad invasive species.” Also, with Goss, Blewett challenged the idea that crabs only eat only through their digestive system. “They do,” she says, but their work revealed that “they also have the ability to take in amino acids through their gills.”
Many others, including Em Lim and Elizabeth Boulding, have examined this invasive species’ impacts and voracious appetites. Boulding has a long-term experiment at BMSC on purple shore crabs and three other crab species looking at local population dynamics under climate change, El Niño, and the warm blob. When she set up the experiment, “I didn’t expect to be looking at climate change and major climate events,” she says. Boulding discovered huge recruitment of pointy periwinkle from California in years with El Niño. The beauty of long-term research at BMSC is that “Sometimes you start out studying one thing, and then through serendipity…something else comes along, and you monitor it at the same time,” she says.
These and a multitude of other highly collaborative research efforts at Bamfield inform the choice of marine protected areas, fisheries management, and how we predict ecosystems of the future. That’s critical, says Rogers, “because everything’s changing on the coast. Collectively we can become part of the solution.”
8. Illuminating the past — Ancient mariculture
When it comes to BMSC, there are “lots of people studying the current moment, but not a lot of people studying history,” says University of Victoria archaeologist Iain McKechnie. With collaborator and wife, archaeologist Nicole Smith, he has been doing archaeology in the service of BMSC’s traditional landholders: the Huu-ay-aht First Nations. For much of its history, as part of a community divided by colonial practices like displacement of coastal Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands, BMSC was not closely connected to the Huu-ay-aht First Nation. In the past, “There wasn’t much science done in the service of the [Huu-ay-aht First] Nation,” says McKechnie. That is now changing.
Working at several sites, including along Grappler Inlet, archaeological work by McKechnie, Smith and Huu-ay-aht collaborators, is “celebrating the absolutely amazing human history of the area that isn’t well documented,” says McKechnie. At Bear Island, just off the coast from BMSC, Smith and collaborators have been studying and documenting clam gardens, a form of traditional mariculture practiced by Indigenous Peoples along the Pacific coast for thousands of years. BMSC collaborations with the Huu-ay-aht First Nation are growing in number and scope, including the recent joint completion of the wastewater treament plant. Many trained as ‘Western scientists’ are learning that there are different ways of knowing, including from traditional ecological and Indigenous knowledge, and embracing the concept of “Two-Eyed Seeing.”
9. Sea survival
Some of the early experiments at BMSC probably wouldn’t be approved by ethics boards today. Elizabeth Boulding, who first went to BMSC in the 1970s to research shell-breaking crabs for her BSc and MSc, recalls the shivering and miserable human volunteers on site at the time, involved in a particularly gruelling experiment. Back then, University of Victoria scientist John Hayward [xvi] was studying human physiological responses to cold water in the service of preventing death by hypothermia. In the frigid waters of the Pacific, with volunteers sporting a dry suit, floater coat, or nothing, Hayward was studying how long it took before core body temperature dropped. For these volunteers, Boulding says, “Life was not good…They dreaded it every day.” Such experiments informed the design of life-saving survival suits for cold water boating. Still, given the potentially life-threatening implications of prolonged cold water exposure, it’s work that wouldn’t be repeated today. [xvii]
10. Cucs and community
How nutrients get recycled in marine communities is a fascinating but still poorly understood phenomenon. A rich nutrient soup provisions some ecosystems. Others, like those around coral reefs, are typically nutrient-poor. How do the sea’s nutrient-poor communities not only survive but often thrive? “The key is in the pee,” says Simon Fraser University graduate student Em Lim (pronouns they/them), a student of SFU marine ecology professor Isabelle Côté[h1] . Pee from animals recycles into nutrients for marine plants. How much does this matter in nutrient-poor and nutrient-rich waters? One of the ways Lim addresses that question at BMSC is by putting sea cucumbers in bags to measure their pee. Curious to see this research in action, “I’ve had a lot of friends and family get peed on by my sea cucumbers,” laughs Lim, who is passionate about diversity in the sea and on land. “As a queer, non-binary student of mixed race – equity and inclusion are very important to me,” says Lim.
11. (Bonus material) Flotsam and jetsam: Where’s Waldo?
A new species of mollusk Waldo arthuri, found off the Vancouver Island and Californian coasts and described in 2013, is named after University of Victoria Professor Emeritus Arthur Fontaine. Over two dozen species new to science have been discovered during research or coursework at BMSC so far, including sponges, nudibranchs, mites, fish, copepods, mollusks, marine worms, and more.
[i] Via interview, also, https://web.uvic.ca/~mackie/Career.pdf
[xii] conservation efforts like translocation and restoration for similar but depleted species.
Bose APH, Zayonc D, Avrantinis N, Ficzycz N, Fischer-Rush J, Francis FT, Gray S, Manning F, Robb H, Schmidt C, Spice C, Umedaly A, Warden J, Côté IM. 2019. Effects of handling and short-term captivity: a multi-behaviour approach using red sea urchins, Mesocentrotus franciscanus. PeerJ 7:e6556 http://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6556
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