Kent Island Life: Gillian Kramer ’17 Gets Down and Dirty

In her last story this summer on the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island, Emily Weyrauch ’17 gets the dirt on Gillian Kramer ’17. Kramer is living on Kent Island, collecting soil samples from a number of island habitats to research how soil is affected by nesting seabirds.

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Gilliam Kramer dries out her soil samples on Kent Island

Gillian Kramer ’17 is not afraid to get her hands dirty, and does it all day, maintaining a seemingly constant smile throughout.

This summer, she has been collecting soil core samples from around Kent Island and from neighboring offshore islands in the Bay of Fundy, which she will analyze for the presence of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. She is examining how the soil is affected by the seabirds that nest on these islands — herring gulls and Leach’s storm petrels — in addition to how nutrients correlate with habitat type.

Kramer, who is a biochemistry and anthropology double major, has collected 570 soil samples from 12 habitats on seven islands, which vary with regard to their size, distance from the mainland, habitat composition, seabird species present, and population densities of seabird species.

Unlike the many songbirds that feed and breed on these islands, the seabirds forage elsewhere and therefore introduce new nutrients to the islands’ soil. They live in dense colonies and tend to deposit guano within the colony itself, so the nutrients are not evenly spread across the whole island.

“We usually think of nutrients flowing downhill from the land to the sea via rivers.  However, seabirds transport nutrients in the opposite direction, from the sea to the land,” said Bowdoin Scientific Station Director Damon Gannon. “They forage in the ocean and deposit nutrients on their nesting island in the form of guano. This is an important source of soil nutrients for many offshore islands, which influences the species of plants that grow, as well as the productivity of these plants.”

Halfway through her time on Kent Island, Kramer returned to Bowdoin to be trained by her advisor, Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Dharni Vasudevan, on operating and reading the ICP-MS (inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer), an instrument used to determine the elements present in a sample of soil. Kramer will conduct the chemical analysis of her samples as part of an independent study in the fall semester.

For now, Kramer is enjoying exploring the islands firsthand, navigating through thick vegetation and climbing over dead trees to collect samples, regardless of the weather. The Bay of Fundy is notorious for its fog and rain, but that doesn’t deter Kramer. “I really like being outside,” said Kramer. “I like getting to stumble upon different species I may not have otherwise seen. I was able to see the eider chicks and the gull chicks hatching. I stumbled upon the harrier [hawk] nest and I wouldn’t have seen that if I wasn’t traversing the entire island.”

The project has Kramer travelling to nearby Wood Island, North and South Green Islands, Grand Manan, and the Bowdoin-owned Sheep and Hay Islands to collect soils. “It makes me appreciate all the little things that go into making an ecosystem and all the subtleties that affect what is living and growing in a certain area,” said Kramer.

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Kramer collects a soil sample at the south head of Grand Manan

Kramer’s project may prove useful in determining a longterm habitat management strategy for the island. “Since soil contains all the nutrients needed by plants to grow, it’s the fundamental piece that habitats need to develop,” Kramer said. “It has farther-reaching effects than just under the ground.”

Although Kramer will be returning to Kent Island briefly at the end of August to take samples in and around the petrel burrows, she is saying goodbye to the tight-knit community that has formed here. Students head back to Bowdoin at the end of July. “This is an incredible place. You really get to know all the people who you’re living with,” Kramer said. “Life is just simpler here.”

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