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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Learning to Tell a Story

Like Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, Dr. Randy Olson is a scientist who wants to make science understandable to a general audience.  Dr. Olson’s passion for communicating science led him to USC School of Cinema and a second career in film making.  He will be here next week to help bring the inner storyteller our of twelve graduate students, and he’s brought his latest film with him.  We hope you can join us.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Stories of high school football never grow old!

There’s nothing like lots of time with family over Thanksgiving to drive home the fact that some people are inherently better storytellers than others. How else could you stand to listen to the same story about the come-from-behind, last-minute win (that I witnessed first-hand) year in and year out? Or have someone recount something as mundane as a TV commercial and have you falling out of your seat laughing? Or watch an impersonation of a dog’s attempts to garner some attention that is funnier than the original video? My family is blessed with a number of good storytellers, and I’ll confess that I’m not one of them. So is there any hope for me?

If you’d asked me that question a few years ago, I would have answered with a resounding “No”. I’ve always considered storytelling as one of those innate gifts that some people have and others don’t, with me in the latter category. For one, I prefer to write things down, organizing and re-organizing my thoughts on the page until I get them just right. That way, if I forget the ‘punch line’, I can come back to it later, a strategy that definitely doesn’t work well when telling a joke aloud! Also, I’m much more comfortable coalescing others’ ideas into an organized fashion for a fact-based paper than creating a novel story from scratch (think English 101 vs. Creative Writing). But other than not being the most entertaining relative at family gatherings, does my inability to tell a good story really matter?

Early mornings in the field do wonders for sibling relationships!

This time, I’d have to answer “Yes”. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more concerned about the disconnect between the scientific world and the “everyday” world. (The fact that it’s acceptable to suggest that science is somehow divorced from everyday life without raising lots of eyebrows is an indication of what I’m talking about.) And I think part of the responsibility for fixing this divide lies with scientists, in that we need to do a better job of explaining to our friends and family (for starters) why our work matters to them. But only the closest and most devoted of relatives (thank you, Mama Jennie!) will read my scientific publications, and only the most in need of a job (here’s looking at you, Jules!) will commit to working as my research assistant for a summer to learn the ins and outs of what I do. So we’re back to the need for me to tell a story, and a good story at that, to grab people’s interest and inspire them to want to know more.

Randall being interviewed by WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas at the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab in July 2010.

Enter my collaboration with WFSU. Just prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I had a meeting with Kim Kelling-Engstrom about the possibilities of a joint effort to communicate David’s and my research to a general audience with help from the professionals at WFSU. When the spill occurred, the impetus to document our research on the amazing coastal ecosystems of northern Florida became even more urgent, and we launched this blog. For someone who rarely agrees to having my picture taken, it was a big leap to regularly go in front of a camera and talk about what I do, and why I think it’s important. And it’s been a steep learning curve! But I’m beginning to realize (hope?) that telling a story is a lot like playing sports – some people start with a leg up in the talent department, but everyone gets better with practice.

So how do you learn to tell a convincing story? What are the tricks of the trade? To find out more, David and I have invited Dr. Randy Olson, the self-described scientist-turned-filmmaker, to come give a workshop at FSU this month on just this topic. The workshop is for science graduate students interested in learning how to better communicate their ideas and research to a general audience. Randy went to graduate school at Harvard and had a tenured faculty position in marine biology at the University of New Hampshire until he decided to leave his job and enroll in the University of Southern California School of Cinema. Since finishing film school, he’s directed several entertaining and thought-provoking films, as well as written a book about communicating science. So he’s rather uniquely qualified to speak about the particular pitfalls that plague scientists when it comes to telling a good story, as well as how to overcome them.

I’ll be listening in carefully during the workshop, and I’m sure I’ll have some useful tips to share with you (and implement) on this blog in the weeks following. We’re also excited that Randy has offered to do a screening of his movie Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy at the FSU Student Life Cinema at 7pm on Tuesday, December 11. The movie will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr. Olson and several FSU faculty members. The event is free and open to all who are interested, so come join us!

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

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

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The Benefits of Coastal Living

This fall we’ve been looking at the ecosystem services provided by the various habitats, whether it’s the food it provides us or the protection they provide us from storm surge. Merely living near the coast and its natural habitats can be beneficial.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

I love the coast, and I especially love living along the coast. Seeing the ocean daily gives me a definite sense of peace, even when the water itself is not very peaceful. This good feeling appears to be shared by others – a study out of England found that people living near the coast reliably report that they are healthier than people of similar age, gender, etc., who live farther inland. The exact cause of this increased health (or increased feeling of health) isn’t entirely clear – it may be that people living along the coast are more physically active than their inland counterparts, or it may be that they have reduced stress levels. But the pattern suggests that there is a health benefit to living near the ocean.

Of course there are myriad reasons that people live near the coast, including job opportunities, abundant natural resources, culture, and climate. I’m thankful that my career as a marine ecologist ensures that I will always live somewhat near the ocean! And I am certainly not alone. Many people worldwide live in coastal areas – a whopping 44% of the global population live within 95 miles (150km) of the ocean, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Atlas of the Oceans. That’s 44% of 6.8 billion people, and that’s a lot!

And herein lies something of a dilemma – how can we ensure that people can live near the coast and take advantage of the many economic and personal benefits of coastal ecosystems without harming the ecosystems themselves and losing those benefits? Or the even more vexing problem of one group of people taking advantage of the ecosystems and causing OTHER PEOPLE to lose the benefits of those ecosystems? (We don’t have to go far for an example of this latter issue – just think of the effects of upstream water diversions in the Apalachicola River system on the downstream oyster fishermen.)

That’s when we need good, creative, dedicated people. People who work to strike a balance between the desire to develop coastal areas with the need to preserve and conserve these same areas. People like Pat Hamilton, featured in the video. Because if you don’t protect coastal ecosystems like oyster reefs, marshes, and seagrass beds, then you can lose a lot of the benefits that we derive from the coast, including productive fisheries, outdoor recreational opportunities, erosion control, storm protection, and water quality. And if you do protect them, you can even increase the value of the surrounding areas – for instance, a study by researchers at North Carolina State University found that homes in urban areas that were within 1/2 a mile to a wildlife refuge were worth 7-9% more than homes away from these wilderness areas.

Our region of the Big Bend of Florida is unique in that significant tracts of undeveloped coastal areas remain. As people continue to discover all that this region has to offer and the desire to develop the coast increases, I hope that David and my research will help inform ways to strike that balance between both using and protecting important coastal ecosystems.

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

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Notes From the Field: First cold snap

We had to break out our neoprene waders this week for the first cold snap of the year! The picture doesn’t do it justice, since the sunshine gives a false indication of warmth. Meagan, Ryan, and I shivered our way through setting up 20 plots (out of 80!) for a new marsh experiment.

Thankfully all of the exertion of digging and sieving helped us warm up a bit.  In the process of sieving lots of mud to remove any plant roots and rhizomes, we came across a few interesting items -

1. Many small crown conchs that apparently wanted to avoid the cold, and

2. A few large and interesting (but as yet unidentified) worms that we haven’t seen before. We’ll be out digging again tomorrow and will get a picture of them this time!

Our thoughts go out to everyone dealing with far more than just cold in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

- Randall

Randall snorkels in a seagrass bed in Saint Joseph Bay Peninsula State Park. Photo by Dr. Peter Macreadie. Peter is a researcher from the University of Technology, Sydney, who is visiting Randall and David.

What Have Seagrasses Done For Me Lately?

Episode 6: Blue Carbon Where the Stingray Meets the Horse Conch

At the beginning of September, Randall and David had a visit from Dr. Peter Macreadie of the University of Technology, Sydney.  In this video, Randall takes Dr. Macreadie for a snorkel in St. Joseph Bay.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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We now focus our attention to seagrasses, which as it turns out, often don’t get a lot of attention, at least in comparison to other marine habitats like coral reefs or even salt marshes.

Randall snorkels in a seagrass bed in Saint Joseph Bay Peninsula State Park. Photo by Dr. Peter Macreadie. Peter is a researcher from the University of Technology, Sydney, who is visiting Randall and David.

In part, this lack of attention is due to the fact that seagrasses typically live completely underwater, except at very low tide, and so they are not as noticeable as marshes are. In addition, seagrasses often occur in shallow estuaries not known for their great visibility (and thus not as ideal a location as coral reefs for snorkelers or scuba divers). And, although I disagree, some people just don’t find them very pretty.

Last week as I was starting to think about this post, there was a small uptick in the number of media articles related to seagrasses, at least in Australia. The increased interest was in response to a proposal by the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, to require greater seagrass protection from mining and development projects (read more in this article from the Brisbane Times). As justification for the increased financial burden on companies, Mr. Burke cited the many benefits that seagrasses provide. And just what are those?

Scallop in St. Joseph BaySeagrasses (like salt marshes and oyster reefs) provide habitat for many, many fishes and invertebrates. Studies have found that the number of animals living in seagrasses beds can be an order of magnitude higher than the number living in adjacent coastal habitats. Many of these animals rely on the seagrass beds as a “nursery” that protects them from predators until they grow larger. And lots are recreationally and commercially important species that we like to eat. (Scallops, anyone?)

Seagrasses are also incredibly productive plants, sometimes growing more than 1cm per day, and rivaling our most productive crop species like corn. Because a significant portion of this plant material (particularly the roots and rhizomes below ground) stays in place once the plants die, seagrasses can also serve as important ‘carbon sinks’, or buried reservoirs of carbon. In fact, a recent study estimates that the carbon stored in the sediments of seagrass beds is on par with that stored in the sediments of forests on land!

Although lots of the productivity of seagrass beds makes its way underground, some of it does get eaten. Major consumers of seagrasses include urchins and fishes, as well as the more charismatic dugongs, manatees, and sea turtles.

Spider Crab in St. Joe BaySeagrasses (like salt marshes) also play an important role in reducing nutrients that run off from land into the water. Unfortunately, these nutrients can also lead to the loss of seagrasses, by promoting increased growth of algal “epiphytes” that grow on the blades of the seagrasses themselves. When there are not enough small fishes and invertebrates around to eat these algae, they can overgrow and outcompete the seagrass, leading to its decline. And when the seagrasses become less abundant, the animals that rely on them are also often in danger.

The Big Bend and Panhandle of Florida are home to expansive seagrass beds that also often go unnoticed. But they contribute to the productivity, diversity, and beauty of this area in many ways, as anyone who has been scalloping recently has surely realized!

Here is a quick guide to the animals featured in the video above:
0:40 Horse conch and sea urchin joined suddenly by a stingray
1:41 Juvenile pinfish
1:18 Two shots of a bay scallop
1:33 Sea urchin
1:49 Pen shell clam covered in sea stars (2 shots)
1:56 Horse conch

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

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Four Ways (and more) That Salt Marshes Earn Their Keep

Episode 5: The True Value of a Salt Marsh

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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Much like David finds it hard to distill why the oysters that he studies are so intriguing, I often struggle to convey the charisma of the salt marshes and seagrass beds where I spend so much of my time. At least people like to eat oysters! It can be harder for people to find a connection with the plants that form so many of the critical habitats along our coast (unless of course people misunderstand the meaning of “In the Grass” and think I study a VERY different type of plant!). But even if it is not recognized, there is a connection between the salt marsh and our everyday lives. Like oyster reefs, salt marshes provide many benefits to society, particularly along the coast:

1. A place to live (for marine and terrestrial animals)

Periwinkle snails are among the many animals that make use of the salt marsh habitat.

Even if you’re one of those folks who find it hard to get excited about a bunch of plants, don’t tune out – the salt marsh is teeming with animals! Snails, fiddler crabs, mussels, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and snakes (!) are all critters that we encounter regularly when the tide is out. And there’s always a bit of an adrenaline rush when you see an alligator hauled out nearby. Even better, when the tide comes in, there are lots of animals that you and I (or at least, I) like to eat. Think blue crabs, mullet, and sea trout, for starters. Studies in Florida estimate that marshes provide up to nearly $7000 per acre for recreational fishing alone. Not bad.

2. A safer place to live (for people)

Although it’s generally frowned upon to build houses in the marsh (since it makes it hard for all those animals I just mentioned to live there), it’s a great idea to have lots of healthy marshes near your coastal property. Marshes can protect the coastline from waves and storms, leading to less damage in areas with marshes present. One estimate places the dollar value of coastal protection in the U.S. at over $8000 per hectare per year in reduced hurricane damages! Although here’s hoping that we don’t get an opportunity to test that particular benefit this year.

In addition to reducing the size and strength of waves, marshes also prevent coastal erosion. An unfortunate example of the role of marshes in erosion control came following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – plants in areas of the marsh that were heavily oiled died, leading to greatly increased rates of erosion in those areas (Silliman et al. 2012). Although the benefit of marshes for reducing erosion and combating sea level rise has been recognized for a long time, there are not any good estimates for what this erosion control is worth in $$. Given expectations of sea level rise in the coming years, I think that the motivation to understand the conditions that lead to sediment accumulation in marshes will only get stronger.

3. Clean water (for animals and people)

Because marshes lie at the intersection of the land and the sea, they serve as a filter for things trying to move between the two. When it comes to run-off and pollution from the land, it’s a very good thing that they do. Simply having a marsh present can serve as an effective alternative to traditional waste treatment. Of course, the protection can go the other direction too – marshes played a critical role in keeping oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from getting to higher elevations.

4. A place to graze (for livestock)

Support for livestock grazing is an important role of marshes in some areas, including the U.K. Although it’s not a benefit commonly associated with marshes in this area, the decaying fence posts that extend out into some areas of St. Joe Bay suggest that it wasn’t too long ago that marshes were used for a similar purpose here!

I could go on, but these and other benefits of marshes are described in greater detail in a recent review by Barbier and colleagues (which I referenced on this blog in May of 2011). Here is the table that they put together summarizing the monetary benefits that we derive from intact salt marshes:

Luckily for us, salt marshes keep working their magic even in the absence of accolades or appreciation. But greater appreciation is needed to help curb the decline of salt marshes around the world – estimated to be as much as 2% per year! We hope that this blog will help generate greater understanding and enthusiasm for the incredible coastal habitats that we are lucky enough to work in every day. Let us know how we’re doing!

In the next two weeks, we delve into a habitat that we have only occasionally covered: seagrass beds.  Next week we examine, with visiting researcher Dr. Peter MacReadie, seagrass beds’ role in fighting global climate change.  The week after that, we head to Bay Mouth Bar, one of the most ecologically unique places in the world.  Also, we’ll be look at the failure of the Apachicola Bay oyster reefs from a biological perspective.  Here are a few images of our visit to a Saint Joseph Bay seagrass bed and of Bay Mouth Bar at low tide, when you see all kinds of strange and interesting creatures:

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

Music in the piece by Kokenovem and Pitx