The SWAT Team at work on one section of a survey site in Burnt
Hill, Oregon. Photo: Megan Williams
September 6, 2004
'SWAT Team' conducts an unprecedented survey
of intertidal life on the West Coast
By Tim Stephens
Peter Raimondi, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology
at UCSC, has been studying marine life on the West Coast for about 20
years. But when it comes to field surveys that require identification
of all the organisms that occur in a particular area, he defers to the
biodiversity "SWAT team" he has assembled to conduct an unprecedented
series of surveys of life on rocky shorelines along the Pacific coast
of North America.
Megan Williams searches for sea stars
at a survey site.
Photo: Alison Kendall
|SWAT Team members Kristen Kusic, Haven Livingston,
Alison Kendall, Megan Williams, and Erin Maloney on their way to
a survey site on Kruzoff Island in Alaska.
"They have become without a doubt the best team of field evaluators
around. They really know their stuff," Raimondi said.
Alison Kendall, Kristen Kusic, and Haven Livingston--all graduates
of UCSC--are currently the core members of the Intertidal SWAT Team,
which began doing surveys in February 2001.
They have now surveyed nearly 100 sites, from Baja California to Alaska,
moving in at low tide to document the abundance and diversity of algae
and invertebrates throughout the intertidal zone, an area of tidepools
and rocky benches between the high- and low-tide marks.
The findings from this massive survey project have already revealed
previously unrecognized geographic patterns of biodiversity along the
Pacific coast. The surveys have also resulted in major extensions of
the known ranges of several species. The team's plans are to resurvey
the same sites every three to five years, and in the long run these
surveys will enable scientists to detect significant ecological changes
that might otherwise go unnoticed.
"There have been a lot of intertidal surveys over the years in
certain places, but what really sets us apart is the geographic range
that we have been able to cover," Kendall said.
Raimondi had been doing surveys of intertidal life in California since
1991, with funding from the federal Minerals Management Service to establish
baseline monitoring data in case of an oil spill. Eventually, he decided
that a more comprehensive approach was needed to reveal broad patterns
of biodiversity along the West Coast, which had never been documented
using a standardized approach. He realized that this would require a
group of experts who could conduct rapid, intensive surveys using standardized
procedures over a large geographic range.
Alison Kendall, one of the original members of UCSC's Intertidal
SWAT Team, records data on a Palm Pilot.
Photo: Megan Williams
"The idea was to put together a team that could come in and hit
a site very quickly and intensively, and then move on. That's why we
called it a SWAT team," Raimondi said.
Raimondi is a principal investigator in the Partnership for Interdisciplinary
Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), a major collaborative project started
in 1999 with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. PISCO
researchers are focused on understanding the processes that drive the
intertidal and subtidal ecosystems along the West Coast. Although biodiversity
surveys were not initially a major focus for PISCO, the SWAT team's
work is now a fundamental part of the project.
"It gives the context for almost everything else we do,"
Raimondi said. "What we were hoping to do was to discover broad
patterns in the organization of these biological communities, and then
see what causes those patterns and how they change. The surveys give
us a basis from which to look for change, and they have allowed us to
delineate important biogeographic regions along the coast."
In addition, the surveys are providing essential information for the
management of coastal resources, Raimondi said. "Informed management
requires an understanding of biodiversity and ecological threats at
a scale relevant to the system being studied. For coastal marine systems,
this could mean the entire West Coast," he said.
As word has spread about the Intertidal SWAT Team's expertise and growing
database of information, requests for samples and data have begun pouring
in from outside scientists. "A lot of people just want to pick
our brains about species distributions, because we travel so much. We
have in our heads a lot of information about where you can find different
species and general trends that would be hard to find in textbooks or
journals," Livingston said.
The typical survey site is a gently sloping, rocky intertidal bench.
The survey protocol is the same at every site and begins with laying
out a giant grid that extends at least 30 meters along the shore and
as far out as the tide goes. Team members record the species present
at 100 locations along each of 11 transect lines running down the bench
toward the ocean. At three spots along each transect, they lay down
a large square of PVC pipe and record all the mobile invertebrates,
such as snails, limpets, and crabs, within the square. They also map
the locations of all sea stars (important predators in the intertidal
zone) along each transect.
Team members move quickly, recording data on Palm Pilots equipped with
bar-code readers so that common organisms can be recorded by simply
scanning a bar code on a laminated data sheet. At the end of the day,
all of the data are downloaded onto a laptop computer.
On the first visit to a site, the team drills bolts into the rocks
to help them relocate the same site for repeat surveys in subsequent
years. The team also creates a detailed topographic map of each site
using surveying equipment and 3-dimensional computer graphics. "Then
we can overlay the species we've recorded onto the topographic map,
so you get a picture of how small changes in elevation can affect which
species are present," Livingston said.
The team is often accompanied by other members of Raimondi's lab, other
PISCO researchers, volunteer helpers, and local experts. Two key contributors
to the SWAT team's work are David Lohse, a postdoctoral researcher in
Raimondi's lab, and Carol Blanchette, a PISCO scientific coordinator
based at UC Santa Barbara. Lohse works closely with the SWAT team and
helps out at many of the survey sites. Blanchette helps in the field
and with data management and analysis.
Kendall and Kusic, who both have bachelor's degrees in marine biology,
were among the four original members of the SWAT team. Livingston, who
has degrees in environmental studies and water resource management,
joined a year later.
"I can identify hundreds of species now, but it took a lot of
training. The learning curve is really steep, even for those who come
in with a degree in marine biology," Livingston said.
Team members regularly attend taxonomic workshops to hone their identification
skills, and Kusic recalls taking furious notes at the workshops during
her first year on the job. One year later, however, she and other team
members were leading some of those same workshops.
Whenever the team goes to a new survey site, members contact regional
experts and, if possible, bring them along to help with species identifications.
But there are few intertidal experts who have seen as much of the West
Coast as the SWAT team.
"We get to go to a lot of great places, including some remote
places that most people don't have access to," Kusic said. "And
we get to work with the local experts and rangers who really know the
area and are willing to share their knowledge with us."
"It's a dream job, being outdoors and working in these amazing
places," Kendall added.
The SWAT team spends a lot of time on the road, moving from site to
site. The surveys have taken them to the Gulf of California, the Channel
Islands, and Glacier Bay, Alaska. All of the team members enjoy the
work and love being outdoors, but by the end of the field season they
are ready to spend some time at home, Kusic said. From midsummer into
fall, the minus tides tend to occur at night, and during this period
the team keeps busy at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory, sorting specimens
and organizing their data.
"Voucher" specimens are collected to document the species
identified during the surveys. The team's algal specimens are now stored
at UC Berkeley's Jepson Herbarium, while the invertebrate specimens
will be housed at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
"All the taxonomists we worked with told us that no one would believe
our results if we didn't have voucher specimens," Kendall said.
Several members of the SWAT team have recently moved on to other things.
Erin Maloney, one of the original members, left a few months ago to
run an invasive species program at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.
Megan Williams, also an original member, spent the past year studying
science writing at UCSC and will soon be on her way to New York to work
for Discover magazine. Caroline Engel, who has been with the
team for about a year, will be working part-time in a PISCO research
lab. Kendall took last year off to study science illustration at UCSC
and is only back with the team temporarily.
The fact that all of the SWAT team members so far have been women was
not by design, although it does make sharing tents and motel rooms a
bit easier, Livingston said. "But we're a nonexclusive club,"
People often ask them what SWAT stands for. Officially, they say, it
doesn't stand for anything, but unofficial suggestions from team members
abound, including Soaking Wet and Tired; Stinky, Wrinkled and Tough;
SeaWeed Action Team; and Scientific Women at the Tides.
Primary funding for the intertidal SWAT team's coastal biodiversity
survey is from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation through the PISCO
project and from the Minerals Management Service, a bureau of the U.S.
Department of the Interior. More information about the survey is available
on the team's web site.
PISCO is a long-term interdisciplinary program that includes research
and monitoring of not only the intertidal zone, but also the nearshore
rocky reefs and kelp beds along more than 1,200 miles of coastline in
California and Oregon.
Started in 1999 with a five-year, $20 million grant from the Packard
Foundation, PISCO is led by researchers at UCSC, UC Santa Barbara, Stanford
University's Hopkins Marine Station, and Oregon State University. The
Packard Foundation has provided an additional $4 million grant this
year to support PISCO's ongoing work.
Return to Front Page