Bennington’s New Sea Lab: Construction Now Underway!

Guest blogger: Jeffrey Matthews ’14

I bet that when you think of octopuses (yes, that’s the plural of ‘octopus,’ though ‘octopi’ is also technically correct), you think, ‘neuroscience’. No? Well, I doubt that the future cephalopod residents of Dickinson’s new Sea Lab will be making this connection either. Fortunately, someone sees the potential of the neuroscience-cephalopod link: David Edelman, Bennington’s new professor of neuroscience. A man on a mission of discovery, David can’t wait to get cracking on research that could offer insights into fundamental questions regarding brain evolution, learning, memory, and visual perception. It’s also worth noting that the new Sea Lab will be one of just a handful of laboratories in the world exploring the neurobiology


of the octopus. But, wait! Don’t go rushing off to the Dickinson Science building expecting to see octopuses just yet. The animals haven’t arrived, and even if they had, the system that will handle a gargantuan 1,650 plus gallons of artificial seawater in the Sea Lab hasn’t been completely plumbed yet. But, never fear science enthusiasts; David and his diligent crew have been hard at work installing eight, 250 pound, 6‘x2‘x2’ acrylic aquariums, a network of pipes and valves, monitors, bioreactors, UV filters, and the other components necessary for life support in a marine environment. This isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made. Seven of the eight giant acrylic tanks are now in place atop stands fabricated from industrial agricultural bins (each normally used to hold 1000lbs. of tomato slurry) and thick Ikea kitchen countertops. As humble as the tank stands sound, the amount of weight they’ll need to support is14,000 lbs. of seawater, acrylic tanks weighing 250 lbs. each, and 100 lbs. of rock and gravel in each tank. The tables have been tasked with a formidable challenge indeed–especially considering that they are going to support the equivalent of three-and-a-half 2014 Ford Explorer SUVs!

Come visit the lab and look closely; you will see that the acrylic tanks are shining and blemish-free. This is especially impressive, given their previous year in service and a 2,915-mile journey from San Diego California that left them heavily scratched and dirty. Just a note about scratches, dings, and blemishes: it takes many hours of sanding, buffing, and polishing to restore worn acrylic to the kind of pristine mirror finish on display in the laboratory. Scratches and other defects may seem like trivial details, but when it comes to building an effective and functional marine laboratory, details do matter.

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Science Workshop: Dr. David Edelman

Join us for a discussion about the scientific study of consciousness by Dr. David Edelman, new Bennington faculty member in Biology and Neuroscience.

The Biology of Consciousness

The octopus and parrot: Defining the frontiers of consciousness.

What does it mean to be conscious? Do we have a reasonable definition of consciousness that can be applied broadly to both humans and seemingly sentient non-human animals? Is it possible to study consciousness in animals that can’t tell us what they are experiencing?




Conscious experience seems quite tangible to us. Yet, consciousness in humans has only recently become a legitimate object of scientific study. Moreover, to date, no systematic investigations of consciousness in non-human animals have been undertaken. But now, advances in functional neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and genetics offer the possibility of exploring consciousness substantively and systematically in non-human mammals, birds, and, conceivably, other species as well.

During this discussion, Dr. Edelman will provide a broadly applicable working definition for consciousness. Then, he’ll describe the known properties and correlates of conscious experience as they have been identified in human subjects and provide a plausible evolutionary scenario for the appearance of consciousness in a variety of phyla. Finally, he’ll discuss his recent work with the octopus and offer an experimental framework for the investigation of consciousness in both vertebrates and some invertebrates.


Science Workshop: Dr. Elizabeth Leininger

Evolution of neural circuits for vocal behavior in Xenopus: How my frogs got their simple calls

Dr. Elizabeth Leininger (Columbia University) will discuss how African clawed frogs (Xenopus) coordinate social interactions via species-specific underwater calls. She addressed this question in species of Xenopus that make slow, simplified advertisement (male fertility) calls. These simple calls are also the rarest type in the genus, and evolved more than once from a more complex call type. How did this occur? Using recordings from the brain and larynx, she found that two of these species (X. borealis and X. boumbaensis) make their simple calls via different modifications of the vocal circuit. She will also discuss how features of the muscle within the Xenopus vocal organ can promote differences in call rapidity across the sexes and species.

Please join us in Dickinson 225, Friday at 1:00. As always, delicious finger foods will be served.