Each week during the fall term, students in Chris Petersen’s marine biology class don rubber boots and waders to prowl the shores of Frenchman Bay and Mount Desert Narrows. Carrying nets, buckets, and survey equipment, they follow the energetic professor whose sparkling eyes and sense of humor belie his gray hair and beard. He is the first to put on a wetsuit, step into the surf, and dive into the chilly waters where students compare the similarities and differences of species of whelk, learn the relationships between the plants and animals along the shore, and gather specimens for both the touch tank in COA’s George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History and for dissection and observation under the microscopes in the college’s zoology laboratory.

Chris Petersen and Ite Sullivan '18 unravel a net to gather specimens on Northeast Creek, near campus. Behind them are teaching assistant... Chris Petersen and Ite Sullivan ’18 unravel a net to gather specimens on Northeast Creek, near campus. Behind them are teaching assistants Devina Viswanathan ’17 and Tyler Prest ’16. Photo by Shlomit Auciello ’17.As a researcher, Chris is focused on the reproductive behavior and biology of fish. He’s especially interested in the fish of coral reefs. “This means that I have spent thousands of hours snorkeling on rocky and coral reefs from the Gulf of California to Panama in the Eastern Pacific, and throughout the Caribbean,” he says. “I am, most of all, a behavioral ecologist, trying to understand why animals behave the way they do.”

A quest for knowledge

I’ve come to this class as a 61-year-old undergraduate with a focus on screenwriting and an interest in gender transition and the relationship between climate change and pandalid shrimp reproduction. These small hermaphroditic creatures are an important part of Maine’s winter economy and are seeing a dramatic decrease in population. At the same time, human beings are experiencing an increase in the number of those identifying as transgender and seeking medical solutions to their dysphoria. I hoped that Chris’ marine biology course would help me understand how sex change occurs in one species while I explore the impacts on communities that stem from both types of transitions. What I found was far more than what I was seeking. I wasn’t alone.

“Working in the cold water off Otter Cliff Point to collect algae for an ongoing research project in connection with Acadia National Park gave me an opportunity to discover that I love fieldwork,” says Rose Dawson ’18, whose current focus is botany. This algae study revisits the exact location of tide pools observed in the 1920s to see if or how the algal community has changed over the last century.

“By reexamining the same areas for algal community composition, we could see if there were any changes that might be predicted by either climate change or species that had been introduced since the first study,” Chris says.

A second team, of which I was a member, spent a half-dozen mornings digging sections of cold, gritty clam flats to help local regulators determine where commercial diggers can seek future harvests.

Threat assessment

One of the fixtures of Chris’ class is an assessment asking students at the beginning of the term to prioritize sixteen existing threats to ocean ecosystems, ranking them in terms of both concern and solvability. Chris has been conducting this survey since he began teaching at COA twenty-four years ago; the list itself was compiled by students in his first COA marine biology class.

Chris sees this list as a way of encouraging students to think about how they might want to organize their environmental efforts. “There are a million worthy things to work on right now. Which way to go is an interesting question to me,” he says. After two decades, the survey has become a record of the trends of marine concerns and the changes in the perception of those threats. Currently, he says, “global climate change is the obvious one. It went from not important at all to the most important threat that students perceive.” The survey begins a conversation about how students’ perceptions and ranking of threats and solvability differ from those of the general population. It also becomes a mark of the impact of the course. “Being willing to change your mind after listening to one’s peers and the course material is really critical,” he adds.

Assessment revisited

At the end of the term the class reviewed its rankings, along with those made in 1995 and 2007. In 1995, climate change was ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. Of greatest concern then were oil spills—this was six years after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef. But always, climate change was considered among the hardest problems to solve.

When our class took the survey at the beginning of the term, I gave trash—inorganic waste—a ranking of thirteen. At the end of the term, I was surprised to find the class consensus ranked it as second only to climate change as a threat to marine ecosystems. My original ranking was based on my assumption that corporate-sponsored activities would have a stronger influence on the quality of the environment than would small-scale human activities. What I learned was that more than half of current marine litter comes from recreational activities on the shore, with an additional 28 to 33 percent coming from cigarette butts—such a tiny item, but the 845,000 tons of cigarette butts that end up in the ocean each year presents a huge problem. A recent survey named cigarettes as the most littered item on the nation’s roads and beaches.

Lexie Taylor ’18 also changed her perspective on trash. “I was very shocked to see how much trash was really in the world’s oceans. I did not put it that high on my threat list, but when I saw those presentations I wanted to change it. It was also really interesting to think about what made a threat more threatening, and how it could be the urgency of the threat or the severity.” For Rose, the survey “showed how the less people knew about an issue, the less threatening they were likely to rank it—seeing climate change so far down the list not that long ago was an interesting discovery.”

Like Chris, I want to understand why animals behave the way we do. What I learned from him, in the waters off Mount Desert Island, in the bright light shining on the stage of a microscope, and in the animated discussions in our classroom, highlighted the complexity and interconnection of all of us who share the life of this earth. As I learned more about the life cycles of northern shrimp and other marine species, Chris helped me gain a deeper understanding of how our small actions radiate through our environment and our decisions have consequences that may not be recognized for generations. The relationships we build determine the future we share.


Shlomit Auciello ’17 is a writer and photographer from Rockland, Maine, completing her BA at COA.