All posts by Randall

About Randall

Dr. Randall Hughes is an ecologist and marine biologist focusing on the causes and consequences of species and genetic diversity in coastal systems. She has conducted experimental work on plants and animals in seagrasses, salt marshes, oyster reefs, and kelp forests. The common thread throughout these activities is a long-standing interest in generating information that can enhance the effectiveness of conservation and management decisions.

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Does Diversity Matter in the Salt Marsh? A Look Back

Dr. Randall Hughes has collaborated with WFSU on this blog since 2010. We have spent years visiting her research sites in Saint Joseph Bay, where Randall conducted a multi-year study on salt marsh biodiversity funded by the National Science Foundation. The study has concluded, and Randall has published several papers on her findings. Here is what she has found.

This is Saint Joe Bay week on the Ecology Blog.  Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions, and our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure. 

Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University
Just a bunch of grass?  Not to the larval shrimp, juvenile mullet, pinfish, fiddler crabs, mussels, periwinkle snails, and blue crabs that make use of the habitat, or the birds and sea turtles that go hunting there.

Just a bunch of grass? Not to the larval shrimp, juvenile mullet, pinfish, fiddler crabs, mussels, periwinkle snails, and blue crabs that make use of the habitat, or the birds and sea turtles that go hunting there.

As you drive along Highway 98 towards St. Joseph Bay (SJB), one of the most common views outside your window is of the salt marsh.  From the car, it looks like a beautiful but monotonous meadow of green and/or brown, depending on the season, often intersected by tidal channels. So I won’t blame you if “diversity” is not the first word that comes to your mind as you gaze out the window. But diversity is exactly what I set out to find out about when this project first started – how much diversity is there in the marshes of St. Joe Bay, and what (if any) effects does it have? And now, several years later, I finally have answers to share!

First, let’s revisit what I mean about diversity. There are 2 main types that I have focused on for my research:

Species diversity, or the number of different species in an area. If you garden, you can think of it as the number of different vegetables or flowers you plant.

Genetic diversity, or the number of different genetic individuals (or genetic variants) in an area. Using the garden example, this would be similar to the number of different tomato varieties you plant in your garden.

Randall Hughes and Ryan Coker in an FSUCML Greenhouse

Randall and technician Ryan Coker tend to plants in an FSU Coastal & Marine Lab greenhouse. Before Randall and her team could begin to test their theories about marshes and marsh grass, they needed to create controlled marsh units of a comparable size, and needed to know the genetic identity of the grass in their plots.  Randall grew this grass for two years before conducting those experiments.

Wait – why so much talk about plants? Don’t animals have diversity too? Animals do have diversity, and this diversity matters – for one, having more species of fish on a coral reef means the corals grow better. But plants are the foundation of the marsh – if you have no plants, you have no marsh. So I have focused on the species and genetic diversity of the plants and tested how it affects the number and diversity of animals that live there (which includes animals that we like to eat, such as blue crabs). The dominant marsh plant species in many areas is cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), and we created a greenhouse full of known genetic individuals to use in many of our experiments. Here are some of the highlights of what we have learned, with a little background on each, and links to the published articles where you can learn more if you’re interested:

1. Increasing the number of plant species in the marsh, even just from one species to two, can reduce the negative effects of a hungry periwinkle snail.

Periwinkles are really common in the marsh, and when conditions line up just right (the periwinkles are hungry, the cordgrass is already stressed from something like drought) they can mow down the cordgrass. We don’t see this happen very often in SJB, and I wondered if that was because there’s another really common plant species – needlerush – that often grows with the cordgrass, that the periwinkles also seem to like, at least for climbing on to stay out of the water and away from their predators. So we did an experiment where we planted cordgrass with and without needlerush and with and without periwinkles, and we found what I had expected: having needlerush neighbors around means the periwinkles don’t mow down the cordgrass!

Randall published these findings in the Ecological Society of America Journal.

2. Contrary to conventional wisdom that a few cordgrass individuals (also known as “clones”) rule the marsh, genetic diversity can be quite high, with as many as 9 distinct individuals living together in an area the size of a hula hoop.

periwinkles on cordgrass

Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), the foundation species of a coastal salt marsh. Before she could understand how the genetic diversity of this species affects the health of a marsh, Randall needed to know how many genetic individuals were present within the ecosystem.

Genetic diversity is really important for the ability of plants and animals to respond to stress or change, and so it’s something we often want to know, but the bummer about it is that it’s not nearly as easy to measure as species diversity. You can’t just look at two cordgrass plants and tell whether they are the same or different genotypes! I teamed up with Dr. Katie Lotterhos to use little snippets of DNA to tell us whether the cordgrass plants we collected from the marshes around SJB were all a few closely related individuals, or whether there were lots of different individuals around. It turns out that even though they all look pretty much the same, there is a lot of genetic diversity in our marshes.

Randall and Katie published these findings in the Inter-Research Science Center’s Marine Ecology Progress Series (link is a PDF).

Monoculture plot- four genetically identical cordgrass individuals.  In this specific experiment, plots are composed off one, two, or four separate individuals.  Do plots with higher diversity fare better?

A monoculture plot of four genetically identical cordgrass individuals. In this experiment, similar to the one described to the right, plots were composed of one, two, or four separate individuals. Did plots with higher diversity fare better?

3. Changing the number of cordgrass clones living together in an area the size of a hula hoop affects how well the plants grow, as well as how many animals share that space. These effects of diversity may be particularly important when plants are first colonizing an area, such as in restoration efforts.

Once we knew how many different genetic individuals shared a hula hoop-sized area in natural marshes, we did an experiment to see how changing that number affects how well the plants grow. This experiment took a long time to prep, because we first had to grow a bunch of plants in the greenhouse so that we could keep track of who was who. After that, the experiment itself was pretty simple: plant 1, 3, or 6 different clones inside a hula hoop (well, in this case it was a modified hula hoop made of less expensive irrigation tubing) at the edge of the marsh, and watch them grow over time.

Randall published these findings in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology.

4. Just like you and me, different cordgrass clones have unique characteristics – some are tall, some are short, some do well in a crowd, and some like a little breathing room. And the animals that live amongst these plants, such as mussels and fiddler crabs, can go from being friends to enemies depending on which clone they are interacting with.

Even though I said before that all cordgrass plants look similar, it just so happens that when you grow the same clones in the greenhouse for a few years, you start to see slight differences among them. And these differences that seem pretty minor to us are really important to the small animals like fiddler crabs and mussels that live on and around the plants. So, in part to test this idea that different clones have different relationships with fiddler crabs and mussels, and in part just to do an experiment with fiddler crabs because I think they are cool, we set up an experiment using different cordgrass clones growing with just fiddlers, just mussels, or both. And although typically mussels and fiddlers are both “friends” with cordgrass (in that they provide it with nutrients and oxygen in the sediment to help it grow), that is not a universal truth – some cordgrass clones did not benefit (or even were harmed) by having mussels and fiddlers around.

Randall, her graduate student Althea Moore (whose investigation of a similar relationship between mussels and another marsh plant we covered in 2013), and Randall’s oyster collaborator Mike Piehler published their findings in the journal Oikos.

It’s a little disconcerting that ~ 4 years of work can be boiled down into these 4 highlights. Of course there are loads of details I’m leaving out, as well as other ongoing projects that will tell us even more about the effects of diversity in the salt marsh. That’s how the scientific process works – you gain some answers, and those answers lead to new questions! Job security for a curious mind…

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

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Can crabs hear? (Revisited, with answers!)

P1050260Four years ago, we traveled out into the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor with Dr. David Kimbro.  It was both the start of an ambitious new study and of our In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Last June, we went back to those reefs with Dr. Randall Hughes as she, David, and their colleagues revisited study sites from North Carolina to the Florida Gulf.  In 2010, they sampled the reefs with nets and crab traps, and harvested small sections of reef.  This more recent sampling, which unfolds in the opening scenes of our recent documentary, Oyster Doctors, was conducted with underwater microphones.  Randall explains how sound became a tool in further understanding fear on oyster reefs.

The research in the following post was conducted while Randall and David worked at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University

A little over a year ago, I wrote about our research project, motivated by a question from WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas, to test whether crabs can hear the “songs” made by their fish predators. At the time, the work had not been published, and so I was not able to share all of the juicy details. But now it has, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so I can finally answer with a resounding YES!

To review a little bit, Rob’s question really had 2 parts:

  1. Can crabs hear (anything)? (They don’t have ears.)
  2. Do crabs respond to the sounds of their fish predators?

To answer #1, we paired up with Dr. David Mann. Dr. Mann is an expert in bioacoustics, and particularly in evaluating whether marine critters (primarily fish) can hear different sounds. We modified his methods slightly to accommodate our mud crabs – basically, we needed to immobilize the crabs on a ‘stretcher’ so that we could insert one electrode near the crab’s antennae, and another in the body cavity to pick up any background “noise” the crab may be produce that was not in response to the acoustic stimuli. Although it looks like mud crab torture, all the crabs survived the experiment!

Mud Crab Hearing TestWhat did we find? The crabs had a neurological response (i.e., they “heard”) a range of frequencies. They certainly wouldn’t ace any hearing tests, but if a sound is low- to mid- frequency and relatively close by, they can likely hear it. They do this using their statocyst, a structure containing sensory hairs that can detect changes in orientation and balance, and in this case, can detect changes in particle acceleration associated resulting from the acoustic stimuli.

Although cool to someone like me who is fascinated by marine biology, many of you are probably thinking “So what?”. And for that, we turn to the second part of our study, where we tested whether mud crabs change their eating habits in response to the songs made by their fish predators. We compared the number of juvenile clams that crabs ate when we played them either a silent recording or a recording of snapping shrimp (a common organism on oyster reefs that doesn’t eat crabs) to the number of clams that they ate when we played them recordings of songs from 3 fish that DO eat mud crabs – hardhead catfish, black drum, and toadfish. Apparently catfish and black drum songs are the same to a crab as the Jaws theme song is to me, because they hunkered down and did not eat nearly as many clams when they heard the calls of those two predators.

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Phil Langdon feeds a catfish in an iteration of a mud crab hearing experiment.  They had already noticed that mud crabs were eating less when they heard sounds made by catfish and other predatory fish.  Here, they sought to measure whether the response was more intense with chemical cues (pumped via those tubes into tubs), or predator sounds (played from underwater speakers).

So, now we know that mud crabs can hear, and that they don’t eat as much when they hear some of their predators. But we also know from our earlier experiments that these same crabs don’t eat as much when exposed to water that hardhead catfish have been swimming in, most likely because they can “smell” chemicals in the water that the fish give off. So which catfish cue generates a stronger response – sound or smell? Turns out that both cues reduce crab foraging and to about the same degree, although in our experiment the effects of catfish songs were slightly stronger than the effects of catfish smell.

So what’s the take-home message from this work? For one, it highlights that we still have a lot to learn about the ocean and the animals that live in it – we (and others) have been studying these mud crabs for years and never thought to consider their ability to use one of the 5 major senses! In addition, it’s a reminder that in studying the “ecology of fear”, or the effects that predators have on their prey even when they don’t eat them, we need to remember that few predators are silent, and the sounds that they make could be important cues that prey use to escape being eaten. And finally, it demonstrates that science can be really fun!

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Seagrass Wrack in the Salt Marsh – Blessing or Curse?

2-Minute Video: Seagrass wrack kills part of the marsh, but do its benefits outweigh the destruction?

Our videos to date have centered on biodiversity in the marsh and how it can make a marsh stronger against disturbances. As we see in this video, at least one type of disturbance might actually promote genetic and/ or species diversity.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University
This snake was found in a seagrass wrack experiment in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve. Blue crabs were often found taking shelter in their experimental plots as well.

This snake was found in a seagrass wrack experiment in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve. Blue crabs were often found taking shelter in their experimental plots as well.

This time of year if you look around salt marshes in our area, you’ll probably see a strip of dead plant material, or “wrack”, resting on top of the salt marsh plants around the high tide line. Look closer, and you’ll see that it’s mostly made up of seagrass leaves that have either been sloughed off naturally (seagrasses produce lots of new leaves in the summer and shed the old ones) or, occasionally, uprooted by boats driving through shallow seagrass beds. Look even closer (say, by picking it up), and you may just find a harmless marsh snake (or worse, a cottonmouth!) – in our experience, they like to hang out in the cool, moist areas under the wrack.

So is this wrack “good” or “bad” for the salt marsh? As with many things in life, the answer depends on your perspective. If you’re a snake or other critter that likes the habitat provided by the wrack, then it’s probably a good thing. On the other hand, if you’re one of my crew who finds that snake, and particularly if you’re Robyn who REALLY doesn’t like snakes, then it’s most definitely a bad thing. Or, if you happen to be the plant that the wrack settles on top of for long periods of time, then it’s a bad thing, because many of those plants die. But, if you’re a seed that is looking for a good spot to germinate in the marsh, then the bare spot created by the wrack is likely a good thing.

Bare spot left in salt marsh left by seagrass wrack.Last fall, David and I teamed up with Dr. Peter Macreadie from the University of Technology Sydney to find out how the bare “halos” created when wrack mats smother the underlying marsh plants influence the marsh sediments. It turns out, these bare areas store less carbon in the sediments than the nearby vegetated areas, which makes them less valuable as “sinks” for carbon dioxide. But as I mentioned earlier, the bare areas can also serve as a good spot for new plant species (or new genotype of a given species) to start growing, potentially increasing the overall diversity of the salt marsh. And as the seagrass wrack decays, it can provide valuable nutrients to the marsh sediments that support future plant growth. So what is the net outcome of all these good and bad effects?

We decided to do an experiment to answer that very question. As Ryan and Meagan will attest (along with almost everyone else in our labs who we enlisted to help us), this was a very labor-intensive experiment. First, we had to figure out how much wrack is typically in a given area of marsh. Then, we had to collect a lot of wrack, weigh it, assemble it into bags that could be “easily” moved to our experiment, and add it to cages that would help hold it in place. We’re talking ~1.5 tons of wrack picked up and moved to various spots!

FSU Coastal and Marine Lab technician Megan Murdock spin dries seagrass wrack for an experiment at the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.To make matters even more interesting, we had to soak the collected wrack in water to make sure it was all the same wetness, and then spin it around in mesh bags (think salad spinner on a very large scale) for a set amount of time to make sure we could get a consistent weight measurement on each bag. Anyone driving past the SJB Buffer Preserve in early September of last year must have wondered what craziness we were up to! And since we were interested in whether the length of time the wrack sits in one place influences its effects, or whether the number of times that wrack sits in a particular area matters, we moved all of this wrack around in our cages every 2 weeks for 3 months to mimic the movement of natural wrack by the tides. And then we measured everything we could think of to measure about the marsh.

We’re still going through all the data to determine the net outcome, but as expected, whether the wrack is a blessing or curse depends on who you are:

  • Juvenile blue crabs seem to like hanging out in the wrack (which is a much nicer surprise to find than a snake, even when they are feisty!)
  • Fiddler crabs also appear to like the wrack, with greater burrow numbers when wrack is present.
  • Contrary to our expectation that wrack would kill cordgrass and allow other plant species to recruit into the marsh, it looked like cordgrass actually did better in the wrack cages!
  • Sea lavender, a marsh plant with very pretty purple flowers, does not do so well when covered with wrack (Learn more about sea lavender and its relationship with mussels).

More to come once all the data are analyzed…

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Music in the piece by Philippe Mangold.

Dr. Randall Hughes inspects a black mangrove growing in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

Black Mangroves: Strangers in a St. Joe Bay Marsh

2-Minute Video: Mangroves don’t love the cold, but relatively mild winters have seen them multiply north of their range.  Randall takes a closer look at black mangroves in  the salt marshes of Saint Joseph Bay.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150

A few years ago, I took my colleague Dr. Ed Proffitt to check out the marshes in St. Joseph Bay. He asked to see mangroves, and I thought he was crazy. Mangroves up here? No way! But we had only been in one Buffer Preserve salt marsh together for a few minutes before I realized that the small “shrubs” that I had previously ignored were actually small black mangroves! And the more we looked, the more we found. They aren’t everywhere, but they can be quite abundant in some places.

Shrubby black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) are an increasingly common site in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

Shrubby black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) appear to be an increasingly common site in the marshes of the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

Mangroves typically occur below the “frost line”, or in areas that don’t experience hard freezes. Lore has it that mangroves have become more common in the northern Gulf of Mexico in recent years due to a series of mild winters. I haven’t been monitoring them long enough to say whether or not there are more now than there were, say, 10 or even 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to see that the ones that are here are successfully reproducing, with small seedlings surrounding the adult trees.

There are even red mangroves lingering around – they are less cold-tolerant than the black mangroves and a surprise to find in our marshes!

Dr. Randall Hughes inspects a black mangrove growing in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.I definitely have not seen any significant dieback in the last 5 winters, even when we have had hard freezes. And I would not be surprised if they become more common and abundant as the climate continues to change.

Mangroves in the marsh raise a number of interesting questions. Will they take over? What will that mean for the services these areas provide to people? Will the fishes and crabs that we like to eat become more or less abundant if mangroves dominate over marsh grasses?

A study conducted in Texas marshes looked at conditions under which mangroves best survived in marshes.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I can say that the mangroves that occur in St. Joseph Bay aren’t necessarily “better” at surviving in the northern Gulf than mangroves from farther down south. And why should they be?  Well, if a group of mangrove propagules arrived in St. Joe Bay, we may expect that only a subset of them would be able to survive the colder temperatures, and when these propagules grew into adult trees and produced propagules of their own, they should pass that “benefit” to their offspring (the process known as natural selection).

Black mangrove propagules.

Black mangrove propagules.

How do we we test whether St. Joe Bay mangroves are better equipped to live here than mangroves from down south? We have 2 ongoing experiments where we’ve planted “propagules” (young mangroves that look a lot like seeds) from different locations throughout FL in St. Joe Bay and followed them through time to see which ones survive and grow the best. There’s a lot of variation, but the St. Joe Bay propagules (which were largely the “runts” of the bunch to begin with) did not do as well as propagules from some of the areas down south such as Cedar Key and Cape Canaveral. These results suggest that it doesn’t take a particularly special propagule to survive in the northern Gulf; instead, there probably aren’t just many propagules that make it up here to begin with.

Of course, we’ve only been monitoring these propagules for 1-2 years; maybe the St. Joe propagules have an advantage when they get old / big enough to reproduce. We don’t want to speed up the mangrove take-over, so we’ll remove the seedlings in our experiment before that happens. But we’ll definitely continue to monitor the ones that already made it here on their own accord to see what they do next!

The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) south of Saint Augustine is where Randall and David have done a lot of their oyster research.  There, mangroves mingle with marsh cordgrass. Could salt marshes in St. Joseph Bay (or north Florida in general) one day look like something approximating this?

Music in the video by pitx.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Diversity- Getting by With a Little Help From (Salt) Marsh Friends

2-Minute Video: Marsh cordgrass, needlerush, sea lavender, mussels, periwinkle snails, and fiddler crabs: diversity in the salt marsh.

In Randall’s last post, she looked at whether genetic diversity within the salt marsh foundation species- smooth cordgrass- made for a stronger marsh (and by stronger, of course, we mean better able to shelter yummy blue crabs for people and sea turtles). In today’s post and video, Randall examines how the combination of plants and animals around cordgrass- the species diversity of a marsh- might play a role as well.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Even though salt marshes often look like one big sea of green in the intertidal, there are plants and animals other than marsh cordgrass around. And even though I devote a lot of effort to understanding the effects of diversity just within cordgrass, these other species are also important – no marsh is an island. (Well, actually they are, but you get the analogy.)

Fiddler crab found in a St. Joseph Bay salt marsh.So who is important, and why? There are at least two animals that can be classified as “friends” of cordgrass – fiddler crabs and mussels. Fiddler crabs create burrows that allow oxygen to get down in the sediment, and cordgrass roots appreciate that oxygen. The fiddler crabs also aerate the sediment during their feeding, and they can excrete nutrients that the plants use to grow.

As an aside, fiddler crabs are also irresistible for kids (and maybe adults too!).

Mussels aren’t quite as charismatic as fiddler crabs, but they like to nestle around stems of cordgrass, and the byssal threads that they use to attach to one another and to the sediment can help prevent erosion. In addition, they excrete nutrients and other organic material as a byproduct of their filter-feeding, and the plants take advantage of these nutrients.

While investigating the relationship between mussels and marsh cordgrass, Randall’s graduate student, Althea Moore, noticed that mussels also seemed to often accompany sea lavender in the marsh. This led to a separate study for Althea.

So who is MORE important, mussels or fiddler crabs? We did an experiment to test that question, or really, to test whether having mussels and fiddler crabs together is better than having just one or another. The answer? As with much in ecology – it depends. For one, it depends on what you measure. If you look at the number of cordgrass stems, then fiddler crabs are the better friend – cordgrass with fiddler crabs does better than cordgrass without fiddler crabs, regardless of whether you have mussels or not. But if you look at how tall the plants are (another important characteristic in the marsh), then mussels are the better friend, but only when fiddlers aren’t around. And if you look at the amount of organic content, mussels increase organic content at the sediment surface, whereas fiddlers increase it belowground. In the end, the take-home message is that the more things you measure about the marsh, the more important it becomes that you have both mussels and fiddler crabs in order to be the “best”.

In the process of doing the experiment I described above, Althea (my graduate student) noticed that when she was out in the marsh, she often found mussels in and around sea lavender (Limonium) plants more often than she found them around cordgrass. She became interested in finding out whether the mussels benefit the sea lavender, the sea lavender benefits the mussels, or a little bit of both. She’s still working on the answer, but it just goes to show that although we often tend to focus on who eats who (think Shark Week) or who can beat who (Octopus vs. Shark, anyone? Or, for kids, there’s always Shark vs. Train – a favorite at my house!), there are just as many instances of species helping one another (not that they always intend to).

Of course, it’s not just animals helping (aka, facilitating) plants – plants can help other plant species to. We’ve shown through a series of experiments that cordgrass benefits from having its tall neighbor needlerush (Juncus roemarianus) around, but only if the snails that like to graze on cordgrass are also present. Nothing is ever as simple as it looks in the marsh…

Music in the piece by Revolution Void.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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The Many Personalities of Salt Marsh Cordgrass

2-Minute Video: Do sea turtles and fishermen benefit from a genetic diversity in marsh cordgrass?

As Randall mentioned in her last post, biodiversity can mean many things. In this video, she examines diversity within a species, in particular marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Each Spartina plant has its own personality. What Randall wants to know is: are more personalities better for a salt marsh (and the sea turtles and blue crabs that use it)?
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab / Northeastern University

Its difficult to see the diversity of the cordgrass in this vast sea of green.IGOR chip- biodiversity 150One of the more striking things about a salt marsh at first glance is how uniform it is. A sea of green. Or maybe a sea of green (cordgrass) in the intertidal and brown (needlerush) further back. But definitely not something that screams “diversity”.  And yet, wondering about the importance of diversity in the salt marsh is what I spend a lot of my time doing.

Often, when scientists talk about diversity, they are referring to different species of plants and animals (= species diversity). But there are actually lots of different kinds of diversity – functional diversity, phylogenetic diversity, genetic diversity. To illustrate what these terms mean, let’s shift to the topic I most like to think about when I’m not thinking about science – FOOD. Functional diversity is one of the broader categories, where different species are grouped by how they look or behave. So, think vegetables vs. fruits. Or, even green leafy veggies vs. root vegetables vs. berries vs. melons. Phylogenetic diversity refers to how related the species are – broccoli and cauliflower are more closely related (and thus have less phylogenetic diversity) than broccoli and zucchini – whereas species diversity refers to how many different species there are. Finally, even a single species can have a lot of diversity within it – apples are a perfect example of a fruit with large numbers of varieties to choose from. It’s this last level of diversity, genetic diversity, that I’m really interested in.

Some of a Spartina plant's below ground root structure.  Many of the plants used in Randall's experiment have sent out rhizomes under the sediment which have sprouted new shoots.  If you're at the edge of a salt marsh and see a line of marsh cordgrass plants sticking out into the water, they're likely connected by such a rhizome.

Some of a Spartina plant’s below ground root structure.  Many of the plants used in Randall’s experiment have sent out rhizomes under the sediment which have sprouted new shoots.  If you’re at the edge of a salt marsh and see a line of marsh cordgrass plants sticking out into the water, they’re likely connected by such a rhizome.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to tell different ‘varieties’ (aka, genotypes) of cordgrass apart as it is to tell a Granny Smith from a Red Delicious. Most of the plants look really similar, and it’s impossible to tell by looking from above the ground which ones are connected by roots and rhizomes below the ground. I have 2 solutions to this problem:

1. Take small pieces of cordgrass into the lab and use even smaller snippets of DNA to tell who is who. (As my dad says, think CSI with grass.)

2. Take a single cordgrass stem and grow it in a flowerpot in the greenhouse until it starts to produce lots of other stems. By splitting these up and allowing them to continue to grow (and keeping careful track of which pot is which), I can produce a supply of known cordgrass genotypes to do experiments with.

Neither of these techniques happens overnight. In fact, it took us nearly 2 full years to get enough genotypes in the greenhouse to start doing experiments with! (Proof that even someone without a green thumb – like me – can work with plants, but it takes longer than it should.)

Each bar in these graphs represents a different marsh cordgrass genotype. You can see how each plant differs in "personality" from its number of stems and flexibility.

Each bar in these graphs represents a different marsh cordgrass genotype. You can see how each plant differs in “personality” from its number of stems and flexibility.

The cool thing about spending that much time with these plants is that you start to recognize that they have their own flavors or personalities. Some grow a few really tall stems vs. others with lots of average size stems; some flower in July vs. others that flower in October; some have really flexible stems vs. others that are more rigid (which probably matters if you’re a snail climbing up the stem).

It’s these different personalities that may allow a mixture of multiple genotypes to do better over time than a genotype growing by itself. For one, if some genotypes are better at surviving some sort of disturbance, then having a mixture of genotypes increases the chances that one of those “good” genotypes is included in the mix. Or, if genotypes are all a little bit different, they may be complementary to one another, allowing the mixture to do better than any one of them growing alone. (This “complementarity” can also be referred to as facilitation, and it’s an idea we’ll return to in coming weeks.)

We have several experiments that are wrapping up now that test this very idea – do diverse marsh patches perform better than less diverse patches? If so, why does that happen? Early indications are that the answer is like a lot of things in nature – it depends. Sometimes the diverse patches do better, and sometimes they don’t. So now the trick is to figure out how to predict when diversity will matter, and use that information to help conserve existing salt marshes and restore marshes that have been damaged in the past (which can help provide a steady supply of blue crabs for both sea turtles and us!).

Music in the piece by airtone.  Thanks to Mineral Springs Seafood for letting us tag along as they emptied their crab traps.  And thanks to Gulf Specimen Marine Lab for the underwater footage of Allie the sea turtle (good luck out there, Allie!).

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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How Can We Prevent Salt Marsh Die-Off?

2 Minute Video: Do Marshes Combat Die-Off Through Biodiversity?

Data on “cold” and “warm” episodes compiled by NOAA and the National Weather Service correlate warm episodes with events Randall and David care about: the ruining of oyster reefs south of Saint Augustine by crown conchs in 2005, the Apalachicola oyster fishery crash last year, and the die-off of salt marsh habitats at the turn of the millennium.  These episodes are part of a normal climatological cycle, though recent droughts during warm years have been severe.  
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/Northeastern University

Mineral Springs Seafood's Dusty Murray empties a crab trap by a salt marsh off of Ochlockonee Bay.  Blue crabs are one of the many animals that make use of the salt marsh habitat.

Mineral Springs Seafood’s Dusty Murray empties a crab trap by a salt marsh off of Ochlockonee Bay. Blue crabs are one of the many animals that make use of the salt marsh habitat.

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150We’re going to shift our attention a bit to another intriguing intertidal habitat – the salt marsh. We’ve focused a lot recently on oysters, and how David is applying what we’ve learnedfrom our oyster research the last few years to try to understand the crash of the Apalachicola oyster fishery. There is something inherently interesting and fascinating about oysters, despite the fact that they look a lot like not much more than really sharp rocks. And of course, there is urgency to understand the oyster problems in Apalachicola because of the very real and immediate human costs associated with the fishery collapse.But now, my goal is to convince you that the salt marsh is just as fascinating as oyster reefs, even if it is not a highly visible fishery in trouble. Think of me as the parent trying to get you to appreciate your broccoli, after David already gave you your chocolate cake. I’m going to get you to LIKE your broccoli.

The “broccoli” in this scenario is none other than salt marsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, a familiar character on this blog. In addition to oysters, cordgrass has been the focus of most of my research in FL. Why, you may ask? Why study broccoli when you could be studying chocolate cake all the time? The parent in me is tempted to use the catch-all phrase “Because it’s good for you!” But I’ll refrain, and instead give you a few actual reasons:

1. Oyster and cordgrass really aren’t all that different.

What do oysters and cordgrass have in common? At first glance, it may not seem like much. Oysters are animals; cordgrass is a plant. Oysters are tasty (depending on your palette); cordgrass is inedible. Oysters support a community of fishermen, at least in better times; cordgrass doesn’t.

Except this last distinction, which may seem intuitive, is not actually true. Cordgrass, and salt marshes more generally, support a wide range of fishery species including blue crabs (as you can see in the video), mullet, and sea trout. Studies in Florida estimate that marshes provide up to nearly $7000 per acre for recreational fishing alone. And like oysters, salt marshes provide more benefits for us than simply what we can eat, including protection from storms, increased water quality, and erosion control.

2. Plants are cool.

I know I don’t have to convince any of you gardeners out there about the beauty of plants. Give them a little sunshine, some nutrients, and a little water, and they do their thing. And cordgrass can even manage in salt water! There’s something to be said for low maintenance study organisms.

An AmeriCorps volunteer waits for students on Choctawhatchee Bay.  They will be planting Spartina alterniflora as part of the Grasses in Classes Program.

A year ago, that full-bodied marsh in the background looked just like the rows of small cordgrass shoots leading up to it. Both were planted by Laurel Hill School students as part of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance’s Grasses in Classes program.

Not only that, but you can plant a single cordgrass stem, leave it alone for a few months, and return to find that it has expanded to 20 stems, all from the same individual!  (Or, if you’re lucky enough to be part of Grasses in Classes, you can admire successive years of growth from single transplants.) This “clonal expansion” is impressive, and it makes answering some of the research questions that I’m interested in pretty easy to address – I can test whether some individuals are better at expanding than others, or whether they withstand stresses like grazing better, or whether having a mix of individuals is better than lots of stems of the same individual. I can ask these questions using oysters too, but it is a lot more difficult. Even we ‘eat your vegetables’ advocates like taking the easy way out sometimes.

3. Marshes are in trouble too.

Although not in the headlines of the local papers at the moment, cordgrass has experienced significant declines in the Gulf of Mexico in the past, and salt marsh loss is a historic and ongoing problem in many parts of the world. And in some cases, the same problem can contribute to the loss of marshes and oysters. For instance, drought has been linked to salt marsh die-off in the Gulf, and drought-induced stress can make the plants more sensitive to other stresses such as grazing by snails. (As we’ve discussed before, drought and increased salinities can also make oysters more sensitive to predators and disease.) Because of the many benefits that marshes provide, it is in our best interest to understand the causes of these losses and try to prevent / counteract them.

Marsh Periwinkle (Littoraria irrotata) climbing cordgrass (Spartina Alterniflora) in a St. Joe Bay salt marsh.

Marsh Periwinkle (Littoraria irrotata).

For these reasons and more, I’ve been conducting lots of experiments the past few years to (a) understand what factors increase / decrease how sensitive cordgrass is to it’s major grazer, the marsh periwinkle, and (b) figure out if having more cordgrass individuals (or “genotypes”) makes the marsh less sensitive to change. We’ll highlight these experiments in the coming weeks as part of our quest to spark your fascination with the salt marsh!

Music in the video by Cross(o)ver.  The maps used in the animation were generated by the National Drought Mitigation Center.  Special thanks to Mineral Springs Seafood for taking us along as they emptied their crab traps.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

Can crabs hear? (A testament to the benefits of collaboration)

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the ecology of fear in oyster reefs. What makes oysters too scared to eat, potentially keeping them from reaching market size or filtering water? What makes mud crabs too scared to eat oysters, giving the oysters a better chance to succeed? New research by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro might change the way we understand fear in mud crabs.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150When we started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, Rob (WFSU-TV Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas) embarked on a crash course learning about oyster reefs and salt marshes, biodiversity, and non-consumptive predator effects.  While you’re most likely familiar with those first few terms, the last one – non-consumptive effects – is a bit of a mouthful and hasn’t exactly made the list of new slang words of 2013.  The term refers to the ability of predators to SCARE their prey even when they don’t EAT them, causing the prey to hide, or eat less, or change their size/shape to make it less likely that they will be eaten.  Of course, these changes are only possible if the prey realizes the predator is there before getting eaten!  There are several “cues” that prey can use: (1) they can see them (visual cues); (2) they can feel them (physical cues); or (3) they can “smell” them (chemical cues).  This last category is really common in the ocean, especially with slimy snail or fish predators that give off lots of chemicals into the water!

As Rob was learning more about the fish predators that we find on our oyster reefs, he discovered audio clips of the sounds that several of these fish make.  Putting 2 and 2 together, he posed a simple question to David and me: Can mud crabs use fish sounds as a cue that their predators are near?

Housam collecting juvenile clams attached to oyster shells for use in the experiment.

To be quite honest, David and I didn’t have an answer.  But, we knew how to find out – do the experiment(s)!  We enlisted Housam Tahboub, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Flint, who wanted to do his summer Honors project in our labs.  (Little did he know what he was getting into.)  And then we set off on a crash course in bioacoustics, underwater speakers, and crab torture chambers (more on that in a minute).

Rob’s question really has 2 parts:
(1) Can crabs hear (anything)? (They don’t have ears.)
(2) Do crabs respond to the sounds of their fish predators?

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

To answer #1, we paired up with Dr. David Mann at the University of South Florida. Dr. Mann is an expert in bioacoustics, and particularly in evaluating whether marine critters (primarily fish) can hear different sounds. We modified his methods slightly to accommodate our crabs – basically, we needed to immobilize the crabs on a ‘stretcher’ so that we could insert one electrode near the crab’s antennae, and another in the body cavity to pick up any background “noise” the crab may be produce that was not in response to the acoustic stimuli. Although I know it looks like crab torture, all the crabs survived the experiment!

A mud crab submerged in the acoustic chamber

A crab submerged in the acoustic chamber.

Once the crab was immobilized and the electrodes were in place, we submerged the crab in a tank full of seawater that had an underwater speaker in it. We then played a series of acoustic stimuli of different volumes and frequencies and quantified the response recorded by the electrode. The really nice thing about this method is that we don’t have to train the crabs to tell us when they hear the noise like in the hearing tests that you and I take!

A marked oyster shell with juvenile clams glued on it as a crab buffet.

To tackle question #2, we set up a mesocosm experiment at FSUCML. Each mesocosm (aka, bucket) had sediment, a layer of loose oyster shell to serve as habitat for the crabs, and 5 mud crabs that we collected from nearby oyster reefs. We also added some juvenile clams glued to a few marked oyster shells in each mesocosm – this way, we could count the number of clams eaten over time and determine whether crabs were eating more or less in response to the predator sounds.

To run the experiment, we downloaded sound clips of several different crab predators – toadfish, black drum, and hardhead catfish – as well as 2 non-predators to serve as controls – snapping shrimp and a silent recording. Housam put these on his iPod, connected it to an amplifier and underwater speaker, and we were ready to begin.

(Well, let’s be honest, it wasn’t quite that simple. Housam read a lot of papers to figure out the best methods, spent lots of time collecting crabs, and logged lots of hours (both day and night, in the company of mosquitoes and biting flies) moving the speaker from tank to tank before we finally settled on a good protocol. He even tried all of this in the field! But when his summer ended, Tanya, Phil, and Ryan kindly stepped in to run the rest of the trials we needed.)

But we didn’t stop there. We know from our earlier experiments with Kelly Rooker (another undergraduate researcher) that the crabs don’t eat as much when exposed to water that hardhead catfish have been swimming in, most likely because they can detect chemicals in the water that the fish give off. So which cue generates a stronger response – chemical cues or sound cues? Time for another experiment!

Phil checks on the mesocosm experiment at FSUCML

In this version, the mesocosms were assigned to one of 4 combinations: (1) a silent recording, paired with water pumped from a tank holding 2 hardhead catfish into the mesocosm; (2) a recording of a hardhead catfish, paired with water that did not go through the catfish tank; (3) a recording of a hardhead catfish, paired with water from the catfish tank; (4) a silent recording, paired with water that did not go through the catfish tank. We again looked at the number of clams eaten over time to see how the crabs change their behavior.

This project has been a lot of fun, and it never would have happened were it not for Rob’s curiosity. We gave a preview of our results at the Benthic Ecology conference in Savannah, GA, last weekend. But we’ll have to wait until everything is reviewed by other scientists and published in a scientific journal before we can share all of the details here. So stay tuned!

Music in the piece by zikweb.

Black Drum recording used in the video courtesy of James Locascio and David Mann, University of South Florida College of Marine Science.

Catfish and toadfish recordings copyright University of Rhode Island.  They were obtained from dosits.org, under these terms:

Copyright 2002-2007, University of Rhode Island, Office of Marine Programs. All Rights Reserved. No material from this Web site may be copied, reproduced, re-published, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way except that you may download one copy of the materials on any single computer for non-commercial, personal, or educational purposes only, provided that you (1) do not modify such information and (2) include both this notice and any copyright notice originally included with such information. If material is used for other purposes, you must obtain permission from the University of Rhode Island. Office of Marine Programs to use the copyrighted material prior to its use.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Crown Conchs- Friend or Foe?

For today’s post, we shift our look at the ecology of fear from oyster reefs to the (often) neighboring salt marsh.  We know crown conchs are villains on oyster reefs, but might they redeem themselves “in the grass?”  If they live on the Forgotten Coast, it depends on what side of Apalachicola they live.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
The Crown Conch (Melongena corona).

The Crown Conch (Melongena corona).

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150If you’re a fan of oysters and you read David’s previous post, then you probably don’t like crown conchs very much. Why? Because David and Hanna’s work shows that crown conchs may be responsible for eating lots of oysters, turning previously healthy reefs into barren outcrops of dead shell.  And we generally prefer that those oysters be left alive to filter water and make more oysters.  And, let’s be honest, we would rather eat them ourselves!

But, in something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act, crown conchs can take on a different persona in the salt marsh. Here, the exact same species acts as the good guy, increasing the abundance of marsh cordgrass.  And more abundant marsh plants generally means more benefits for we humans in the form of erosion control, water filtration, and habitat for the fishes and crabs we like to eat.  How exactly does that work?

Periwinkle in Spartina predator experiment

The Marsh Periwinkle (Littoraria irrotata).

If you look out in a salt marsh in much of the Gulf and Southeast Atlantic, I can nearly guarantee that you’ll see a marsh periwinkle snail. Usually, you’ll see lots and lots of them. These marine snails actually don’t like to get wet – they climb up the stems of the marsh grass as the tide comes in. While they are up there, they sometimes decide to nibble on a little live cordgrass, creating a razor blade-like scar on the plant that is then colonized by fungus. The periwinkles really prefer to eat this fungus instead of the cordgrass, but the damage is done – the fungus can kill the entire cordgrass plant! So these seemingly benign and harmless periwinkles can sometimes wreak havoc on a marsh.

But wait a minute – if periwinkles cause all the cordgrass to die, then why do you still see so much cordgrass (and so many snails) in the marsh? That’s where the crown conch comes in.

Crown conch pursuing periwinkle snail

At the edge of a marsh at high tide, a crown conch approaches a periwinkle snail. As shown in the video above, the conch was soon to make contact with the smaller snail and send it racing (relative term- the video is of course sped up) up a Spartina shoot.

In marshes along the Gulf coast, there are also lots of crown conchs cruising around in the marsh (albeit slowly), and they like to eat periwinkles. Unlike other periwinkle predators such as blue crabs, the crown conchs stick around even at low tide. So when the periwinkles come down for a snack of benthic algae or dead plant material at low tide, the crown conchs are able to nab a few, reducing snail numbers. And fewer snails generally means more cordgrass.

Of course, the periwinkles aren’t dumb, and they often try to “race” away (again, these are snails!) when they realize a crown conch is in the neighborhood. One escape route is back up the cordgrass stems, or even better, up the stems of the taller needlerush that is often nearby. By causing periwinkles to spend time on the needlerush instead of grazing on cordgrass, or by making the periwinkles too scared to eat regardless of where they are sitting, the crown conch offers a second “non-consumptive” benefit for cordgrass. One of our recent experiments found that cordgrass biomass is much higher when crown conchs and periwinkles are present compared to when just periwinkles are present, even though not many periwinkles were actually eaten.

Periwinkle in Spartina predator experimentOn the other hand, if the periwinkles decide to climb up on the cordgrass when they sense a crown conch, and if they aren’t too scared to eat, then crown conchs can actually have a negative effect on the plants. This is exactly what David found in one of his experiments.  In this case, the tides play an important role – west of Apalachicola, where there is 1 high and 1 low tide per day, each tide naturally lasts longer than east of Apalachicola, where there are 2 high tides and 2 low tides per day.  The longer tides west of Apalach appear to encourage the snails not only to stay on the cordgrass, but also to eat like crazy, and the plants bear the brunt of this particular case of the munchies.

So even in the marsh, it turns out that crown conchs can be both a friend and a foe to marsh cordgrass, depending on how the periwinkles respond to them. And figuring out what makes periwinkles respond differently in different situations just gives us more work to do!

Music in the piece by Revolution Void.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Tile 2.0- Perfecting the Oyster Spat Tile Experiment

As we’ve been getting this post ready, David’s Apalach crew (Hanna, Stephanie, and Shawn) has begun deploying the experiment featured in the video above in Apalachicola Bay.  After years of perfecting it, the tile experiment has become a key tool in Randall and David’s oyster research.  As you can see, there were some headaches along the way.
If you’d like to know more about spat (young oysters), we covered that a few weeks ago in this video.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

An “open” cage, with full predator access.

One of the primary goals of several projects in our labs involves figuring out where oysters grow and survive the best, and if they don’t survive, why not? Sounds pretty basic, and it is, but by doing this across lots of sites/environments, we can start to detect general patterns and identify important factors for oyster growth and survival that maybe we didn’t appreciate before. Our method of choice for this task is to glue the oysters to standardized tiles, place some in cages to protect them from predators, leave the rest to fend for themselves, and then put them in the field and see what happens over time.

In doing this lots and lots of times, we’ve learned who in the lab has a special knack for placing small drops of marine glue – Zspar (which you can see in the video) – on tiles, and who is better at adding the oysters so that the 2 valves of their shells don’t get glued shut. These are the sorts of crazy job skills that don’t go on a standard resume!

Any of you who have been following the blog for a while may remember the craziness of the our first NSF tile experiment (Tile 1.0) in the fall of 2010, which involved collecting lots of juvenile oysters (“spat”) that had recently settled in the field, bringing them back to the lab, and using a dremel to carefully separate that from the shell they settled on. (If you don’t remember and want to check it out, go here.)

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Two of our oyster “families” in the water tables at Whitney Marine Lab

Since the Tile 1.0 experience, we’ve developed more elegant (and much simpler!) methods: we contract with an amazing aquaculturist at a FL hatchery to collect adult oysters from the field, provide just the right ambiance to make them spawn (release eggs and sperm), and then raise the oyster larvae to a perfect size for attaching to our tiles. This year, we added another twist on this theme (Tile 2.0) by collecting adult oysters from different areas in FL, GA, SC, and NC, and then spawning and raising them separately in the same hatchery under identical conditions. We refer to these different groups of oysters as “families”, because all of the spat from a given location are related to one another, but not very closely related to the oysters from a different location (who had different parents).

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Evan and Tanya admiring our work after we deployed the first reef in St. Augustine.

By putting out tiles from each family at sites across this same geographic range (FL to NC), we can tell if some sites or regions are inherently better than others for oysters (for instance, as I’m currently learning first-hand, there’s a reason that everyone wants to spend the winter in FL!), or if some families are naturally better than others (think Family Feud with oysters), or if the oysters that came from a particular site do best at that site, but not in other places (like the ‘home field advantage’ that recently helped Maryland beat Duke in basketball). Whew – that was pretty mixed bag of metaphors! But you get the idea.

We’re still processing and analyzing the data from Tile 2.0, but it looks like which site is the best depends on what you’re measuring – the best place for survival is not always the best place for growth. And the different oyster families do look and “behave” differently – some grow quickly and some grow slowly, and some survive predators better than others.

Spat bred from adult oysters from Sapelo Island in Georgia (left) and ACE Basin in South Carolina (right).

Surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a home field advantage, at least from our initial analyses. And as Meagan pointed out, we’ve learned from other similar experiments for the National Park Service that it’s not just other oysters or predators that these guys have to worry about – it’s barnacles too! But there are still some ‘sweet spots’ out there for oysters, and once we’ve analyzed all of our data, we’ll have a much better sense for where those are.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.
Music by Barnacled and Pitx.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.