Friday Harbor Labs scientist first speaker in Ocean Night series

SeaDoc Society held its inaugural family-friendly, multimedia-focused Ocean Night at Sea View Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 7. In a continued partnership with Camp Orkila, the nonprofit science organization will host monthly lectures and movies about the ocean through the fall, winter and spring.

University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratory scientist Adam Summers, who has a doctorate in organismic and evolutionary biology, was the first presenter of the series.

“What better way to introduce this new format than with Dr. Adam Summers? Having degrees in mathematics, engineering and biology, he knows a thing or two about how animals move,” said SeaDoc Society Executive Assistant Erika Nilson. “This unique combination of interests caught the eye of Pixar Studios, and they approached him to advise them on making a little film called ‘Finding Nemo.’”

To begin his discussion, Summers shared the story of how he came to be the consulting “fabulous fish guy” on the 2003 Pixar animated film “Finding Nemo” and its 2016 sequel “Finding Dory.”

While renting a room of a house in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Summers’ landlord frantically approached him one day asking whether he knew anyone who knew anything about fish. Turns out, his landlord ran Pixar University, the internal education arm of the movie studio, and asked if Summers could give a talk about the animals.

“I can talk for an arbitrary amount of time about any kind of fish, any topic of fish,” Summers said. “You can restrict me to red fish or blue fish, or one fish or two fish.”

Summers explained how he went to present at Pixar University in a room three times the size of Sea View with a screen twice as large.

“There were six people in the audience and they sat in two groups, a long way apart,” Summers said, as audience members laughed. “After three hours one of them said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve gotta go,’ and they just ran out of the room.”

For the next three years, Summers said he worked with the studio. He admitted that there were mistakes in the movies, but none of them were made by accident. Such “mistakes” included leaving off paired reproduction-related external organs on the great white shark Bruce, and how Anchor, the hammerhead shark, had nostrils in the middle of his face rather than under his eyes as is more biologically accurate.

“I was constantly in the position of yelling and getting yelled at over science things,” Summers said.

He explained that he once told a fascinating story about anglerfish reproduction. Since anglerfish live in the dark depths of the ocean where visibility is impossible, the males use their unusually large nostrils to smell the scent of a female.

“And when they find the female, they bite her because they can never let her go. They’d never find her again,” Summers said. “So they bite her and her flesh grows into their flesh and they become a testicular parasite.”

For some reason, Summers joked, they didn’t use that story in either of the films.

Shifting gears from “Finding Nemo” to actual scientific research, Summers introduced his professional work to the audience.

“A lot of what I do at Friday Harbor Labs is I CT scan fishes,” Summers said. “I’m in the middle of a project scanning every vertebrate in the world. In my lab, we’re scanning all the fishes.”

As part of Duke University’s MorphoSource project, Friday Harbor Labs is making 3D images of fish skeletons to be added to a collection of scans made by more than a dozen labs across the country.

“This research lives in that area between mathematics and engineering and biology,” Summers said. “I am, at heart, a natural historian, someone who likes to wander around in the intertidal, flipping over rocks and finding cool fish.”

Another study Summers recently pursued was questioning how sand lance — a type of fish that can be found across the globe — burrow into the sand.

“That’s not normal behavior for fish. Fish swim in the water, they’re not supposed to be under the sand,” Summers said.

So, Summers set forth to discover how and why the sand lance burrow. From previous experience, he said he knew that burrowing creatures have large, heavy skulls, however, a sand lance skull looks nothing like that of an animal that burrows. His hypothesis, then, was that the sand lance would wiggle their faces, liquefying the sand and therefore allowing the fish to swim into it.

“It’s pretty clear, they don’t do that,” Summers joked when he described that five weeks of study and more than 150 videos of burrowing sand lance led to that conclusion. “They definitely just throw themselves face-first into the sand and swim into the sand. And that doesn’t seem possible!”

Summers then tested the type of substrate into which sand lance can burrow. While they can burrow into pretty much every coarseness of sand, he said researchers discovered the easiest sand grain size to dig into for the fish was 0.5 millimeter. Upon further investigation, Summers realized their scales are built to aid in their burrowing.

“Instead of looking like little overlapping pieces of chain-mail, [sand lance scales] look like bands completely encircling the fish,” Summers said. “The sand lance are able to drive themselves into the sand because they have this nanoscale and microscale adaptation to lower the friction.”

Summers explained that sand lance are important because “everything” eats them. They convert zooplankton into a consumable product for whales, seals, birds and other fish. Researchers got to witness the local Pacific sand lance burrow in their own natural habitat when SeaDoc Society and OceanGate brought a five-person submersible to the island for a week of use in September.

The final study Summers shared was of the Northern clingfish.

“I love this fish. Not just because it has provided me with 10 years of research but because it led to one of those wonderful ‘ah-ha’ moments that I live for as a scientist,” Summers said. He explained how one day he was walking along the intertidal zone — his happy place — turning over rocks when he found a clingfish on a rock. Try as he might, he was unable to remove the fish, and then he had a thought.

“And somehow at that moment, I realized that I couldn’t go to the hardware store and buy a suction cup that could stick to that rock at all, and this fish was sticking hard enough to tick me off,” Summers said. “There was probably something really cool there because I can’t buy a suction cup that will stick to my shower. How is this working?”

Summers took a dead clingfish and stuck it to what he called a “snot-covered rock” from the shoreline outside of his seaside laboratory.

“That fish will stick to that rock 300 times. Dead. Without decrement in the amount of force it attaches,” Summers said. He added, jokingly, that it likely would have stuck 301 times but he had insufficiently motivated graduate students to test this hypothesis.

Curious why a dead fish would still cling to a rock far better than an artificial suction cup would Summers took a closer look. He discovered that there are tiny hairs on the fish’s suction cup the same length and width as the hair on wall-climbing geckos. He then wondered just how rough of surfaces this fish would stick to. He made molds of surfaces from glass to 140-grit sandpaper – the roughest commercially available.

“We made molds because I wanted to make sure we were learning about suction as it related to the shape of the surface, so all of the surfaces had to be made of the same stuff,” Summers said. “If there’s any roughness at all, the thing sticks equally well. … That blew my mind.”

The tiny hairs on the cup made the fish cling harder to rough surfaces. The tenacity of the suction triggered an idea. Why not use this technology to attach research tags to orcas?

In 2016, one of the Southern resident killer whales died from an infection which likely stemmed from a geolocation tag. Prior tagging events required impaling an orca with small titanium darts.

Summers said fellow Friday Harbor Labs researcher Petra Ditsche, who has a Ph.D. in zoology, used clingfish technology to make a suction cup able to stick to the skin of an orca. She tested this theory on a piece of skin the lab procured from a deceased orca. The suction cup held for 24 hours on the sample skin and then an additional four months on the wall outside of the laboratory.

“We think this is a viable technology for attaching tags to our local whales. So we’re pretty excited,” Summers said.

For more information about Summers’ research at Friday Harbor Labs, visit

The next Ocean Night features a screening of the film “Beneath the Salish Sea” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at Sea View Theatre.