Research Expedition to Nicaragua

We are Morgan Panzer and Ellen Petley, both rising senior Biology majors, who are working with Dr. István Urcuyo over the summer. His area of research focuses on the biodiversity of marine invertebrates, mainly of the phylum Mollusca, on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. Our work is separated into two main sections. At first, we worked on the sorting, organization and species identification of samples collected during previous research expeditions to Nicaragua (now housed in the laboratory at Gettysburg College). Currently, we are on our 3-week research trip in Nicaragua, and while in the field we perform collection of samples and also carry out water chemistry analysis of both phosphates and nitrates.

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Our Lab Team after climbing to the top of Masaya Volcano dormant crater.


Most of our field locations are located at least two or more hours away from our home-based (an apartment in Managua), so a lot of our days consist of lots of travel in a very cramped rental truck. Generally, our field research teams have consisted of Morgan, Ellen, Dr. Urcuyo, Janina Urcuyo (malacologist), and Luis Canda (ecologist). The study sites that we have visited so far were chosen because Dr. Urcuyo and Luis deployed a thermistor (an underwater digital thermometer recorder) each summer on the ocean floor to collect ocean water temperature data every half hour for the entire duration of the deployment. This temperature data is an important characteristic, and indicator, of near-shore currents that affect the distribution and presence of marine species that Dr. Urcuyo is collecting in Nicaragua’s pacific coast. To complete this task requires a scuba diving expedition and a boat ride with a random local fisherman.

Part of our field work focuses on collecting samples to add to Dr. Urcuyo’s growing biodiversity collection and to add to the collection at the Malacology Museum at the UCA (University of Central America) in Managua. When we visit sites, we generally wade in tidal pools at low tide (when the most organisms and tidal pools are exposed), or we walk along the sandy beach to look for shells that are the least worn and the least broken for better quality of identification. Sometimes, low tide is at midnight and sometimes it’s in the middle of the day, but we have to be ready to look for samples regardless of the time or amount of sunlight. When we go out at night, we work with headlamps, and during the day, we work with plenty of sunscreen. Because the current mollusk collections in both the UCA’s lab and Dr. Urcuyo’s labs are fairly extensive, we have been generally looking for organisms that do not look familiar to us or for those that are especially nice samples. Samples without any live tissue within them (“dry” samples) are collected in a bag, while those that do contain living tissue (“wet” samples) are placed in a container and preserved in alcohol (70% ethanol and 30% water). From there, we label the bags and containers with the location name and date, and then take them back with us to be identified later on either at the malacology lab or our lab in Gettysburg College.

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Looking for marine invertebrates in the tidal pools of Masachapa, Nicaragua.

While at the Malacology Museum in the UCA, we generally spend our time identifying the organisms that we collected in the field. For the “dry” samples, we place them all on a tray and rinse them of dirt and sand with freshwater. We then typically organize them based on morphological similarity so that those that we think are closely related are grouped together. After that, we use our lab mollusk identification reference book, Seashells of Tropical West America:Marine Mollusks from Baja California to Peru, which we jokingly refer to as the “The Mollusk Bible”. A very dedicated female Malacologist named Dr. Martha Keen spent most of her life classifying species of mollusks, and she wrote a book describing most known species of mollusk from the Eastern Pacific at that time. Each species description includes a paragraph describing the shape, coloration and other necessary minutia morphological characteristics (such as the number of ridges on the shell with very many other intricate details about the organism) often accompanied by a picture of the species. Each species of mollusk in each taxonomic Class is assigned a number, deemed the “Keen number”, which we use as a quick identification tool. Oftentimes, two species are nearly indistinguishable, so we use the collections at our lab in Gettysburg, the reference collection at the Malacology Museum at the UCA or the expertise of the biologists in our team to help us figure out the correct species identification. Sometimes, even they don’t know for sure which species the sample belongs to, so we set those samples aside to be taken with us on a future trip to the Smithsonian Museum for further consultation with experts and their reference collections.

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The gastropod Macrocypraea cervinetta on the rocks at Chacocente, Nicaragua.


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After a long day of mollusk identification at the Malacology Museum laboratory in the UCA…

Paying close attention to small details carries over into the other portion of our field work responsibilities: the water chemistry aspect of our research. At each location we travel to, nitrate and phosphate levels are measured numerous times to add to previous collected water quality data. Using a field Colorimeter (Model 850, Hach Company), prepackaged chemical reagent samples and two glass vials, we follow the pre-set protocol for nitrate and phosphate respectively. Unfortunately for us this makes the curious fishermen even more curious about the two gringas (Spanish slang for American) working with strange apparatus and chemicals on his boat.

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Ellen doing water chemistry, on her lap is the instruction booklet and field spectrophotometer. Photo by: Janina Urcuyo

When we aren’t in the boat rocking back and forth, trying to get a meniscus at precisely 10 mL with the waves crashing into us, Nicaragua offers a lot of relaxation. Overcoming the language barrier by talking to local street cats, dogs, and birds is really going well, as they seem to always understand our Spanish. As for actual people, not so much. Trying new cuisine is probably the hardest part of this job, as there are so many new fruit juices, infamous dishes and desserts to try. Each day is a new adventure, including having our truck broken into and the robbery of personal items, peeing in the woods in the dark, and getting rear-ended by stray motorcyclist (but no worries, our team is safe and sound, plus the motorcyclist only received two very minor scrapes. We also get to see some pretty cool scientific stuff, too. During our journeys, we’ve found baby octopuses, a mama Olive Ridley’s turtle laying eggs on the beach, some newly-hatched sea turtles, some mating sea turtles, owls, eels, electrocuted kinkajou, howling monkeys, and lots of military men with AK47s protecting the entry and exits to the natural reserves. The X-Sig program has given us the experience of a lifetime, SCIENCE RULES!

Electrocuted Kinkajou, Photo by: Janina Urcuyo

Electrocuted Kinkajou, Photo by: Janina Urcuyo

Some CSI business after our truck got broken into, photo by: Janina Urcuyo

Some CSI business after our truck got broken into, photo by: Janina Urcuyo

Playing with baby Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles! Photo by: Janina Urcuyo

Playing with baby Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles! Photo by: Janina Urcuyo

Working hard trying new foods (aka stuffing our faces whenever we can).

Working hard trying new foods (aka stuffing our faces whenever we can).

On top of Volcano Masaya. Thanks, HHMI!

On top of Volcano Masaya. Thanks, HHMI!



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