Alex Norton never would have guessed that a conversation about a cool-looking squid shirt would lead to a job as a tuna husbandrist at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Or that the path to get there would involve milking deadly cone snails for their venom. But Norton’s lifelong love for closely observing animal behavior prepared him perfectly for both jobs.
Norton, the tuna husbandrist at Hopkins’ Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC), grew up in a family of scientists – his grandmother was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of Washington, and his father conducted graduate oceanography research at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Norton himself studied rockfish growth at UC Santa Barbara. So when Norton, who sold ornamental rocks for home decoration after college, saw Hopkins professor Bill Gilly walk into the rock yard one weekend wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt decorated with squids, sea urchins and kelp fronds, Norton finally had something to talk about besides which rocks to choose. Gilly realized the extent of Norton’s marine knowledge, and invited him to Hopkins to check out research going on.
Soon Norton was working part-time in Gilly’s lab isolating proteins in cone snail venom, to determine their effects on muscle seizures in prey. As Norton puts it, he became one of the few people “willing to milk a cone snail for its venom”. Cone snails – innocent-looking and often beautiful shells – pack a nasty punch with a small harpoon containing one of the most toxic venoms in the world. But Norton learned ways to handle them to safely extract their venom. He devised a technique of covering a plastic tube with a thick rubber layer and placing a piece of fish fin in front of the tube, then dangling it in front of the snail. The snail would sense the fish and fire its harpoon directly into the tube, releasing the venom as a sample that Norton could collect for his studies.
Norton, who grew up surrounded by the wealth of nature in Pacific Grove and the Monterey Peninsula, remembers a childhood spent collecting and observing the animals around him. His parents would take him to snorkel in the Carmel River, so that he could watch trout swimming in the currents and lurking behind rocks. He kept terrariums in his backyard, with toads, newts, lizards and any other creatures he could find crawling around.
Norton talks of picking up bees and placing them on his arm, just to study them more closely. He quickly learned that if a bee arched its back, it was upset and he needed to flick it off to avoid being stung. If Norton was calm, however, the bee remained calm as well, and he could watch it indefinitely. These close observations of threat behavior paid off later, when Norton explored the nuances of cone snail behavior and attack warning signals while he extracted their venom.
These days, Norton is the lead fish handler at the TRCC, the go-to man when researchers want to catch live tunas from the tanks, in order to sample them non-invasively or measure their swimming abilities. The TRCC has several large tanks, 6 feet deep and 15 feet across, that hold live yellowfin and Pacific bluefin tuna. The tuna range from 2 to 3 feet long and up to 20 kilograms (that’s almost 50 pounds, for those of you who are rusty on your conversions), occasionally tipping the scales at over 100 pounds. Many mornings, Norton gets into the tanks with the fish, and – with the help of any researchers willing to don wetsuits and get their hands wet – Norton scoops up individual fish using his bare arms, and places them into slings to be transferred to respirometry flumes or quickly sampled while live. Although the tank water level is lowered to waist-height during samplings, catching a squirming tuna sometimes entails accidental full submersion, and guarantees unexpected splashing (tunas are sometimes coined the “Ferraris of the Sea” for their speed, strength and precision of movement). One day, a tuna escaped from the grasp of Norton’s fellow handler in a TRCC tank, and hurtled straight toward Norton, ramming into his chest. Norton was mostly unharmed, but the fish created a wave of water that splashed up into the rafters, 10 feet above.
Norton’s job requires a combination of strength, calm, and the ability to read fish movements and understand when they are upset and likely to injure themselves if handled. Norton credits Chuck Farwell, the lead tuna handler at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with teaching Norton all of his tuna-handling skills, but Norton’s lifelong animal observations also paid off, giving him a strong “fish sense” that allows him to anticipate the animals’ movements. Norton has been key to the TRCC’s ability to sample live tunas in a non-stressful environment.
Norton probably couldn’t have predicted as a 10-year-old that his path would lead from observing the arched backs of bees to anticipating the warning protrusions of cone snail radulas, to wading through schools of wary tunas, but somehow it all fits together in retrospect. He loves the daily opportunities to learn new things from the researchers around him, and the ever-changing adventure that working in the tanks with tunas brings. Most of all, he enjoys the ultimate observational experience of being able to track the behaviors of animals he never could have reached with a mask and snorkel or backyard terrarium.