MMA Science Library Conservation Update

Wayne Morris fills pillow anchors that have been inserted into the Library's exterior walls.

Wayne Morris fills pillow anchors that have been inserted into the Library’s exterior walls.

The mason has cut into the crack that runs across the north façade of the building and around the east side all the way to where the east meets the southern façade.  Pillow anchors are being inserted and filled with grout.  He is blazing through his special wet saw blade due to the toughness and thickness of the stucco on the building – a special saw had to be purchased just for this project.  The photograph here shows him filling the pillow anchors – this part is easy compared to the sawing which requires a lot of his own strength to continually push the saw in to make the cuts (exhausting and not easy).

Keep posted with regular updates as the Science Library becomes the MMA’s new ecology lab/classroom and natural science collections storage on Maria Mitchell’s Attic.


Astronomy Director Visits NASA for Historic Orion Launch


NASA invited MMA astronomer Dr. Michael West to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for the launch of the new Orion spacecraft, which will someday take humans to Mars. Highlights included meeting with astronauts, climbing inside a life-size mockup of the Orion capsule, standing in the Mission Control room used for all the Apollo moon landings, and, of course, the successful launch of Orion. It was also an opportunity to promote Maria Mitchell’s legacy as an astronomer to NASA and its many followers on social media.

To read more about Dr. Michael West experiences, check out our Facebook page, West’s twitter feed, and article in the Inquirer and Mirror.

2015 Barn Owl Nest Box Program

Help support the MMA’s research and conservation efforts with these fascinating and beneficial birds! Due to the severe winter of 2013 and 2014, the Barn Owl population was reduced by more than half. Since, more than 20 Barn Owl Boxes were added in 2014.

You can now adopt a Barn Owl Nest Box, a tax deductible gift!

What adopting a Barn Owl Nest Box means:

  • the sponsored box(es) will be checked in the spring or spring and fall;
  • the box(es) will be cleaned if no owls are home or as needed if occupied;
  • small repairs will be made on the box;
  • you receive a personal report on each box you sponsor;
  • you receive an island-wide summary of the owl population each year;
  • notice of when the box(es) will be checked so that you, family and friends can be present. If adults and young are found, the opportunity to assist in the Banding;
  • most importantly, you will be supporting MMA’s Science Research Programs and MMA’s Internship Program.

barn owl 2Read Dr. Bob Kennedy’s letter to learn more about the program.

Over $78,000 Research Grant from Hubble Space Telescope

Dr. Michael West and his colleague Dr. Michael Gregg of the University of California, Davis, have been awarded a research grant of $78,573 from Hubble Space Telescope in support of their project “Morphological Transformation in the Coma Cluster.”

The first Hubble Space Telescope observations for this project will begin in January 2015.
To hear more at that time, subscribe to AstroAlerts or check back here!


Nantucket’s Eelgrass in Danger of Major Declines

Healthy eelgrass on left vs. severe Lyngbya bloom in 2012 on right.

Healthy eelgrass on left vs. severe Lyngbya bloom in 2012 on right.

Maria Mitchell Research Associate Dr. Peter Boyce has managed the scallop and marine ecology research program for the last four years. Since 2006, the eelgrass covering the bottom of our harbor has decreased. With 2014 came a small recovery, a hopeful event after the devastating Lyngbya infestation in 2012. Lyngbya is an invasive macroalgae that smothers eelgrass. This coupled with single celled algae, both of rich thrive on nitrogen-rich water, filter out sunlight and inhibit eelgrass growth. Read below for more details.

Learn what part you can play in helping control the algae in our harbor!

Dr. Peter Boyce will present his findings to the Harbor and Shellfish Advisory Committee on Tuesday, December 16 at 5:00PM in the Community Room at 4 Fairgrounds Road.


Details on the study:

The amount of eelgrass in Nantucket Harbor has shrunk by as much as 40% over the last nine years, according to a long-running Maria Mitchell program of dive surveys. MMA Research Associate, Dr. Peter Boyce, who has managed the program for the last four years, discovered that the percent of the bottom covered by eelgrass has decreased dramatically since 2006 in all areas of the Harbor. The graph below shows the percent of the bottom covered by eelgrass year by year in two critical areas of the Harbor.


Third Bend is a productive bay scallop area, and the Head of the Harbor functions as a nursery. The scallops there tend to seed the rest of the Harbor with their larvae when they spawn.  The insidious decline over the last nine years shown above is small enough not to be noticed year to year. It averages out to be only about 5% per year, and is often swamped by the larger year-to-year variations, but after nine years of scientific sampling  we can say with certainty that the eelgrass is in danger of being totally lost in the next decade.

One of the threats is Lyngbya, an invasive macroalgae which first appeared in Nantucket Harbor in 2008 and can grow in sufficient quantities to smother eelgrass, as shown in the left picture at the top of the post, taken in 2012.  The picture on the left of a healthy eelgrass bed dramatizes the importance of eelgrass as a safe nursery for young fish as well as tiny seed scallops.  On a hopeful note, after dramatic declines in coverage of 37% in the harbor between 2012 and 2013, possibly due to Lyngbya, eelgrass did slightly rebound in 2014.

However, it is not just the black masses of Lyngbya that threaten Nantucket’s eelgrass; single celled algae flourish during the summer as well, abundantly nourished by high levels of nitrogen in the water. They too, filter out the sunlight and inhibit eelgrass growth. We are forcing our sun-loving eelgrass to grow in the shade, and it just isn’t working.

What can we do? Science says that the best method to keep algal levels down to reasonable numbers is to starve them by reducing the available nitrogen in the water.  The rebound in eelgrass coverage in 2014 shows there is hope for our eelgrass. This little temporary success should encourage everyone to reduce fertilizer usage to no more than your lawn and plants can absorb and use. The 2014 rebound should, likewise, encourage everyone to maintain their septic system to ensure it is working at maximum efficiency. And it should encourage us to cheer for the raising of the jetties, which will, according to models, improve the water flow into and out of the Harbor.

Whale Necropsy

  • The juvenile humpback that washed up near Miacomet Beach in 2014
    The juvenile humpback that washed up near Miacomet Beach in 2014.
  • A whale necropsy is a huge amount of work, but the information is incredibly useful.
    A whale necropsy is a huge amount of work. But the information is extremely useful.
  • The fluke was removed so that the underside could be photographed.  This is the humpback's
    The fluke was removed to photograph the underside. This is the humpback's fingerprint.
  • Each organ was carefully checked for disease and parasites.  Samples were taken.
    Every organ was carefully inspected for disease or parasites.
  • Bones were removed from the body to check for injuty
    Bones were removed and checked for damage. Vertebrae in the neck and part of the skull were heavily damaged.
  • A truck was needed to help move the skull to inspect the baleen.
    A truck was needed to move the head to investigate the baleen.
  • After the necropsy, the body was left to be recycled by the ocean.
    After tissue samples were taken and all body parts checked, the body was left for the ocean to recycle.
  • A few vertebrae and ribs were collected for the MMA collection under a special permit.
    A few vertebrae and ribs were collected for the MMA collection under a special permit.

On November 25th, a juvenile humpback whale washed up on Miacomet Beach. On November 30th, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and from the International Fund for Animal Welfare came out to the island to necropsy the whale. Their goals were to identify the cause of death and collect tissue samples and other data to be used in several on going research projects. Scott Leonard, from the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Project, and staff from the Maria Mitchell Association assisted with the necropsy.

Every organ and many of the bones from the body were inspected for damage and disease. Samples of parasites were collected and the team found one tiny hair to collect for analysis. Aside from the whale being very skinny and malnourished, many of the neck vertebrae and the back left part of the skull were crushed. The whale was probably floating at the water’s surface trying to conserve energy and deal with sickness when it was struck by a boat. While dissecting the carcass seems very gruesome, and maybe even disrespectful to the animal, the information gathered is incredibly important and hopefully partially makes up for its death. What scientists learn from this necropsy and others like it may help them design new tools to study whales (like GPS trackers), better understand whale physiology, document whale parasites and their effects, and learn how humanity may further affect whale health (e.g. oil spills).

Thanks to Scott Leonard, Cheryl Samsel, and Michael West for photographs.

Nantucket Nights: What do you and Wine have in Common?


Dr. Michael West, Director of Astronomy, explores the wonders of the universe in his weekly Nantucket Nights column for the Inquirer & Mirror newspaper. This week, he discusses how, like a vintage wine, we’re children of a unique place and time. He writes:

Wine is bottled poetry,” Robert Louis Stevenson said.

But, like poems, no two wines are exactly alike. Climate and soil give distinctive characteristics to grapes from different regions. A Chardonnay from France has a different taste and aroma than one from California, Chile or Australia.

Even wines from the same vineyard vary from year to year depending on temperatures, the amount of rainfall and other variables that make some vintages more prized than others. Every bottle of wine is a product of a specific place and time.

We are too. As psychologist Carl Jung observed, “We are born at a given moment, in a given place and, like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year and of the season of which we are born.” 

You can read the full column online or in print by subscribing to the I&M.

Native Tree Program

The Nantucket Rotary Club and the Maria Mitchell Association
to bring native trees to Nantucket’s 5th graders!


With help from the Nantucket Rotary Club, the Maria Mitchell Association’s Education Director Kim Botelho is working with the Nantucket Elementary School, the Nantucket New School, and the Nantucket Lighthouse School to teach 5th graders around the island about tree morphology.

Students will choose from red maple, red cedar, sassafras, basswood, or black cherry seedlings and learn about their specific species. Students also learn about how planting trees now can benefit not only students of the future, and can also help build a habitat for native animals. We are delighted to see the student’s enthusiasm!

The Nantucket Land Bank has been generous enough to let students
who cannot plant trees at home do so on Land Bank property.
Keep an eye out for the seedlings, and watch them grow!

Witnessing the First Comet Landing

Philae lands on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko November 12, 2014.

Witnessing history is a remarkable feeling. Watching the live-feed from the European Space Agency’s control room, staff of the Maria Mitchell Association anxiously awaited news that Philae, a washing-machine sized probe, landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. At approximately 11:00AM on November 12, the live feed (and MMA staff half a world away) erupted with joy as contact was confirmed.

Located a mere 310 million miles from Earth, the journey of Rosetta, the orbiter, and Philae was long awaited. Launching in April of 2004, Rosetta finally met the comet in August after a series of rotations around the earth. It took several years for Rosetta to catch up to the comet, which travels at approximately 85,000 mph through space.

Initial concerns of how Philae fared in the landing were on our minds. News trickled in that several problems had occurred during contact. Harpoons designed to secure the lander to the surface of the comet to prevent bouncing upon landing did not fire. The lander bounced twice, with the first bounce lasting for almost two hours, and the second bounce lasting several minutes. Worries of damage were the main concern.

By the morning of November 13, concerns were eased when a modest photo of Philae’s foot was released by the European Space Agency. The MMA looks forward to more news and information about the comet.

To read more about the landing, visit the European Space Agency’s website here.