Feb102010
Deep Sea Adventures
Written by Ava

Kevin Zelnio is one busy marine guy.  Besides being a researcher at the Marine Conservation Molecular Facility at Duke University's Marine Lab, where develops microsatellites for deep sea inverts, he also writes for marine blogs like The Other 95% and Deep Sea News.  Somehow, he also makes to raise awareness for The Beagle Project AND spend time with his wife and two kids, AND play the guitar as a hobby, AND write music.  

I get breathless just typing all that! 

We had the opportunity to interview this well-rounded individual and also found out he's an avid marine conservationist and educates on the topic regularly.! Just another star to add to the row of amazing things Kevin is doing with his life.

And to think, it may have all started with weekends spent watching 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea as a kid...

Where did your interest in studying marine science come from?

I don't know actually! My mom credits my endless viewing of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Apparently I watched it every weekend while I was a kid. I grew up in landlocked Iowa, but my parents enjoyed long road trips, seeing natural wonders, camping and fishing. I loved nature programs like Marty Stouffer's Wild America which was on Sunday evenings and Nova on PBS. So doing something 'natural' was a no brainer for me. 

Unfortunately, I did very poorly in school though. I nearly failed out of high school and had no interest in science academically. I planned on becoming a rock star so lets just say I didn't pay much attention to education... After 6 years of cooking and a short stint in the music business I became disillusioned and jaded enough to give college a try. Being that I barely made it out of high school, I started from scratch at a local community college: basic algebra, basic science, basic english, everything basic. I chose to move to Monterey, California to do my community college work (I was living in Berkley, California prior). Being so near the sea, and probably several snorkeling trips to Hawaii with my wife and family, heavily influenced my interest in marine science. I did surprisingly well at Monterey Peninsula College and was offered admission to University of California, Davis to finish up a Bachelor's degree. I flipped around geology and ecology for a while, but settled on Evolution and Ecology for my degree. 

While in college I did lots of work on marine invertebrates in the lab. In my last year I was offered a spot by my geology professors on a research expedition to deep sea hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific, off the coast of Central America and Mexico. This experience sealed the deal for me. I loved the feeling of isolation in no sight of land for hundreds of miles, exploration, finding new animals and the comradery of the scientists and crew. The rest is history!

You are currently a researcher at the Marine Conservation Molecular Facility at Duke University’s Marine Lab. Tell us about that experience.


The MCMF is a new facility at Duke Marine Lab. There are lots of great projects going here from dolphin population genetics, algal biofuels, blue crab molecular ecology, deep sea population structure, and more! It is a vibrant, well-stocked, modern facility equipped with some of the most impressive equipment I've seen in a lab. I love working here, its a very relaxed atmosphere and run very well. 

My position is as a research technician and my project involves studying the population structure of invertebrates living at deep-sea underwater 'geysers' called hydrothermal vents. We want to know in the face of a large disturbance, such as a volcanic eruption or a mining event, if populations of these unique animals will recover. To understand that we need to know populations up to 40 kilometers away are connected to each other. We have recently finished work on a vent snail and I am working on a vent shrimp right now. This shrimp is actually new species though! In collaboration with colleagues from Japan, we are describing this new species as well as another new species of closely related shrimp. 

Your bio says you’re interested in studying deep-sea chemosynthetic environments.  Explain what it is you’re studying and why you’re interested in this particular area.

As I mentioned in the first question, my first major expedition was to deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific. I was able to witness firsthand the majesty of hydrothermal vents when I had the rare opportunity to dive down 2500 meters in the submersible Alvin. After this I decided this is what I wanted to do! I did a Masters degree in Biology at Penn State studying the ecology of the animals living at hydrothermal vents near Fiji and Tonga and studying the taxonomy of vent shrimp and anemones. The latter has resulted in my description with colleagues of 5 new species to science.

Hydrothermal vents are fascinating environments to study because they are completely different that the rest of the seafloor. Vents support a high biomass because it is home to hydrogen sulfide (i.e. rotten egg gas), a rich energy source that is taken advantage of bacteria to fix carbon into a biologically usable form. What is even more cool is that these bacteria lives free-living on the rock or in the water, but also can exist in a symbiosis with giant gutless tubeworms, softball-sized snails, enormous (and also very small) clams and mussels. The invertebrate hosts give the bacteria a place to live and metabolize, and transport hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide  to them. The bacteria utilize the nutrients in their metabolism and the byproducts are simple sugars that the invertebrate host can use to sustain itself. This is very similar to the coral-algal symbiosis Reef Tank readers may be familiar with. Instead of sunlight as the energy source it is a chemical reaction, the splitting of hydrogen and sulfide, that is the energy source. Both pathways have the same result, simple sugars.

Why is marine conservation so important in today’s world?

It is of the utmost  importance that we conserve habitat. Marine ecosystems play an important role in economics and safety for us landlubbers. From protecting our coastlines, protecting people's livelihoods, protecting our economic interests, and promoting tourism income marine conservation serves to aid us. By protecting fisheries we ensure not only the continued survival of those species, but the continued survival of jobs and livelihoods associated with these industries. We need to learn to live with the ocean and not against it. 

We can't ignore the human-ocean interaction. I think people get too tied up in save the planet from evil humans mentality and frankly, that is not a productive line of thinking. Companies will harvest and extract resources, people will do what they want. As a scientist I feel my role can be stronger guiding individuals and companies to carry out their work within sustainable limits and encourage non-destructive alternatives to making a living. While I would love to lay across the railroad tracks, it is not a very effective method and alienates individuals and companies that might be willing to change their behavior to do the work within sustainable framework. It is important that we work together to find the best balance of profitability and sustainability.

What can the average person do to do his part in marine conservation?

First and foremost STOP USING PLASTIC GROCERY BAGS!! Get reusable cloth bags and leave them in the car for all your shopping. Know your seafood, make informed decisions about what you buy at the grocery store and restaurants. Carry a seafood watch (like this one from Monterey Bay Aquarium) card in you purse or wallet. Support other local awareness events in schools, like the Oceans Bowl, visits to aquaria, and other activities that engage children. Let them know early in the lives that ocean conservation is important. They will grow to be our next leaders, CEOs, legislators and educators.

There are lots of great organizations out there working in marine conservation. Many excellent ones work locally, seek them out, volunteer with them, help support them financially. These local organizations are the ground zero for conservation, they are out there doing the grunt work, talking with local leaders and companies, helping make your community a better place to live in. I won't recommend any in particular because it depends on where you live in the world. There are excellent international marine conservation organizations out there too. Groups like Ocean Conservancy, Coral Reef Alliance, Oceana, and more are doing a lot to influence policy makers and working with large national and multinational companies. The groups need your money to make them work effectively. As poor as I am I try to donate some money every year to these organizations. 

Do you believe an aquarium owner could also be a marine conservationist?


Yes! Aquarium owners have a real opportunity to be marine conservationists by educating themselves on best practices and supporting industries that are environmentally sound. It is so important to vet your suppliers. By supporting the companies that are harvesting sustainably or have sustainable husbandry operations you are discouraging the market for destructive practices like dynamite fishing or cyanide which are destructive to all reef inhabitants. 

Tell us about the sites you write for (Deep Sea News, Online Laboratory, The Other 95%) and how you got started with them.

The Online Laboratory is my own personal space on the net, where I have my C.V. And professional information. I blog about non-ocean issues in science there such as the business and politics of doing science and taxonomy. I also put up audio and video of me playing music, review my favorite microbrews, dabble in short fiction and anything I want to do! That is why it is my Online Laboratory.

I got started at Deep Sea News by invitation from Craig (aka “Dr. M”). I guest blogged there for a while then started The Other 95% to talk about invertebrates, i.e. the 95% of animal life that is often shunned (or as I like to say the under-appreciated majority). I was asked back to DSN permanently in January 2008 and have focused on that effort largely since. Deep Sea News is the most trafficked marine science blog out there by several measures and is respected by our colleagues. It is a good feeling when people you respect send you their latest articles and read your blog! The Other 95% is undergoing major overhaul right now in the back channel. My coblogger Eric Heupel and I are going to make a bigger network of invertebrate huggers and it will be a thing of much Glory.

What is the most rewarding thing for you about marine conservation and studying marine science?


The ocean is the largest habitat on the planet and, to be cliché but absolutely true, it is one of the least understood. Every time I go on a deep sea expedition we bring new animals up or make new discoveries. And deep sea biologists are only looking at a tiny fraction of the seafloor. The biggest unknown is the midwater – thousands of meters of depth that we know nothing about. So for me, it is the thrill of discovery and exploration that drives me. I love when I find a new species or an animal I haven't seen before. I get giddy like a little school kid!

What advice would you give to a burgeoning marine scientist? 

I think Craig's post “So You Wanna Be a Deep Sea Biologist?” sums it up very well. It is not as glamorous as it portrayed on nature programming or movies. Be prepared for hard work, long hours and low pay. You do it because you want to make a difference in the world somehow, you love what you do and you have an innate curiosity that won't quit. I'm driven by curiosity. If you don't have curiosity and imagination you'll hate it. As far as school is concerned I cannot emphasize enough how important statistics courses are. Take as much stats and math as possible. Diving and going out on expeditions are great experiences and very important but when it comes down to it you have to be able to analyze that data! That is what pays the bills. Writing is also one the two most important things (next to stats) a scientist needs to be prepared to do. I don't mean to discouraging. I love my work and  recommend it to everyone! But it is important to not have false hopes going in to the field.

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