Studying aquatic ecosystems at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station

Sophomore biology major Laura Anderson discusses researching aquatic life at the Hopkins Marine Station, and what it’s like to have the ocean as her classroom.

Below the bluffs of the California coast is an ethereal place where the ocean meets the land. Home to thousands of tiny alien-like organisms, it’s one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. It’s called an intertidal zone, and it’s also where you’ll find sophomore Laura Anderson studying how the creatures that live in this unique environment adapt to its ever-changing conditions.

This particular intertidal zone is part of the Hopkins Marine Station, a Stanford research facility located about 80 miles south of campus in Pacific Grove. Every year, undergraduate and graduate students leave the Farm to study for a quarter or more at the station. Overlooking the ocean, Hopkins offers classes in a range of science-related subjects that are open to students of all majors.

Anderson, a biology major on the marine biology track, is spending spring quarter at Hopkins learning about evolution and marine conservation, as well as ecology, or the study of how organisms relate to each other and to their physical surroundings.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Video by Kurt Hickman

This intertidal zone is home to sea creatures ranging from sea stars and crabs to barnacles and mussels. But for her lab class, Anderson is focusing her research on one organism in particular. “I’m doing a project on owl limpets,” she says. “They’re a type of mollusk, and are related to sea snails.”

Underneath their shell, owl limpets have an adhesive organ called a foot that they use to cling to rocks. The tiny organisms, inconspicuous to the untrained eye, blend in seamlessly to the rocks on which they live. But Anderson spots them easily.

When the tide is low, she ventures into the intertidal zone to study limpets’ bodies and behaviors. Limpets frequently will have algae, which they graze on, or even other limpets attached to their shell. Anderson is researching whether these interactions determine where a limpet will live or if they affect the temperature of a limpet’s body.

“With the intertidal, you can look at how organisms are interacting with each other and it provides a really cool space to test a lot of those interactions,” she says.

Like in other intertidal zones, the conditions in this area are constantly changing. Whether it’s rising sea levels, changing water temperatures, daylight or darkness, Anderson says that organisms in intertidal zones must learn to adjust to the environment.

Anderson is studying owl limpets, a type of mollusk. (Image credit: Kurt Hickman)

“As you think about the way that the ocean might be changing, or the planet might be changing, you can start to think about how organisms would adapt to those different changes either behaviorally or physiologically,” she says.

Anderson’s field research isn’t limited to just the intertidal zone. Last year she spent five weeks studying the kelp forest located just off the coast and a few hundred yards away from the Hopkins facility. Kelp forests, like intertidal zones, are dynamic aquatic ecosystems that serve as habitats for hundreds of species of invertebrates, fish and other algae. This summer Anderson, who is a certified scuba diver, will remain at Hopkins to continue studying the underwater forest.

“Being able to work down here by the ocean is incredible. It’s an experience that I’m so lucky to be having,” she says. “And definitely something that I’ll want to do for as much of my life as possible.”