Category Archives: In the Grass

Dr. Randall Hughes, among other things, studies biodiversity in salt marshes, and how it affects the habitat’s ability to cope with disturbances.  Does having a greater variety of plant species benefit a salt marsh?  Does having more genetic individuals of smooth cordgrass help when environmental or man made catastrophes strike?  Randall is looking at several factors, from the animals that eat the cordgrass (the foundation species of the marsh), to which combinations of plants work best together, or how seagrass wrack affects the health of a marsh.

Most of her study is centered on St. Joseph Bay, on Florida’s Gulf coast.  On this blog you will also see some of her side projects looking at black mangroves are starting to become more prevalent in Gulf salt marshes and why seagrass beds around the world are dying off.

Meet the animals of a coastal salt marsh.

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Sharing Water Conference: Agriculture Solutions

The above photo of an algae covered turtle swimming among algae mats was taken at a sinkhole near to Wakulla Spring.  The sink is a stop on Jim Stevenson’s Wakulla Spring Overland Tour, which WFSU will be taping as part of our EcoShakespeare series.  Jim uses the sink as an example of the connectivity between area sinks and Wakulla Spring, and to illustrate the high level of nitrates entering the spring.  Wakulla Spring’s issues are representative of those facing the larger Floridan aquifer, through which the Wakulla Spring underground cave system runs.  The Floridan aquifer was the focus of the Sharing Water Conference in Monticello earlier this month.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Are agriculture and the environment inherent enemies?  Seven billion people on this planet need to eat.  Industrial agriculture produces food on a large scale, but can tax water supplies and create nutrient rich runoff that can wreck marine and freshwater ecosystems.   Small organic farms like those in the video above take great care to use practices that protect waterways.  But can the world be fully fed by this type of agriculture?  In early October, a diverse group of people gathered in Monticello to discuss issues such as these.

On October 2-4 2014, the Sharing Water Conference looked at issues facing the Floridan aquifer.  Geologists, legislators, lawyers, land and water managers, farmers, and other concerned citizens gathered to learn about the aquifer and the challenges facing it.  Through a series of multidisciplinary discussions, the conference looked to find innovative solutions facing this giant limestone formation that stretches from South Carolina to Orlando.

The aquifer is the source of springs and rivers.  And it is also the source of the tap water within its range.  Tallahassee has 27 wells that bore beneath the clay of our red hills and into well protected limestone.  Cities like Tallahassee and Monticello are situated on red clay which filters pollutants from water as it sublimes into the earth.  It’s great protection for the aquifer, but it also means that water fills it slowly, possibly at a rate less than that we withdraw.

In his speech at the conference and in his interview with us, State Senator Bill Montford lamented a decrease in the quality and quantity of water in our springs.  As was noted in a recent report on the state of Wakulla Spring, the slow recharge rate of the Red Hills proportionate to water consumption is listed as a possible cause in the increase in the Spring’s dark water days.  In other words, we may be using that clear water faster than rain can replace it.  The report advocates conservation measures, and public education on better conservation practices.

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This water treatment facility in Monticello, FL, uses a five-carousel system to filter human waste from wastewater. The water then travels four miles south to a lake at Simpson’s Nursery. Treated effluent accounts for about 400,000 of the 2 million gallons the nursery uses daily.

Another issue facing Wakulla Spring is an increase of nutrients in the water supply.  A problem area identified in the report are the spray fields in the south of Tallahassee, where “gray water” is sprayed on plants in a field located north of sinkholes that feed the Wakulla Spring system.  Gray water is treated sewage, with most of the “sludge” removed (What is sludge?  Watch the video.  I apologize in advance for the image).  It does still contain nitrates, an excess of which can contribute to algae growth and possibly the growth of invasive hydrilla.  Driving with springs advocate Jim Stevenson yesterday to scout our Wakulla Springs Shakespeare EcoAdventure, he did mention that improvements are being made to the wastewater treatment plant feeding the spray fields that would reduce nitrates from over 12 mg per liter to under 3 mg/L.

As you can see in the video, there is a similar arrangement in Monticello between that city and Simpson’s Nursery.  The nursery is located north of the Cody Escarpment, in the Red Hills region; the Tallahassee spray fields are located on the Woodville Karst Plain.  The Red Hills filters water and protects the aquifer; on the WKP, the aquifer is much closer to the surface and water enters more freely.  The Simpson’s Nursery arrangement seems beneficial to the nursery and to the city of Monticello.  The city is spared the expense of disposing of its gray water, and doing so in a way that keeps it out of waterways.  The nursery pumps 400,000 gallons a day less from the aquifer, saving in electrical costs.  These are the kinds of solutions that were sought at the Sharing Water Conference- private business working together with government to mutual benefit and to the benefit of our groundwater supply.

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Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms use a compost made from fish waste and wood chips. The fish waste comes from local seafood markets, the wood chips from tree cutters. These products would otherwise have sat in landfills, but now they are used to fertilize plants on these small organic farms.

In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance.  I wanted to show alternative methods of protecting waterways.  There is a lot of noise about wetlands legislation, and it is definitely important to decide how best to conserve sensitive ecosystems.  But many of the burdens placed on our water supply can be eased by more efficient practices in our homes, businesses, and farms.  Simpson’s Nursery uses reclaimed and recycled water and reduces their withdrawals from the aquifer.  Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms fertilize their plants using materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill, creating compost that keeps nutrients in soils and out of water (not to mention saving local fish markets a trip to the dump).  These are practices that are cost effective as well as environmentally friendly.

Cost effective AND environmentally friendly.  Beneficial to business AND government.  Solutions are out there, and they don’t always have to arise from conflict, which is so often at the center of environmental debates.  Do any of you reading this know of any similar “win-win” arrangements that benefit the environment and private interests?  Let us know below in the comments section.

Slide presentations from the Sharing Water Conference were uploaded to their site earlier this week.  They are packed with information for those of us who want to learn more.
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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.

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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.

Black mangrove propagules.

VIDEO- Mangroves and Cold, & Oyster Doctors Airs on WFSU

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wednesday, March 19 at 8 PM on WFSU-TV, catch the broadcast premiere of the new In the Grass, On the Reef documentary: Oyster Doctors.

Withered Black Mangrove

Although it was a relatively mild winter, one or two harsh cold snaps provided Randall an opportunity to test black mangrove survivorship in north Florida marshes, where it has become a more frequent resident.

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with wrapping up the National Science Foundation grant that funds a lot of what appears on this blog, and thinking about the future of the project.  The last major piece of funded content is our latest documentary, Oyster Doctors, chronicling four years of research conducted by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro.  On the one hand, the show is about learning how coastal ecosystems work.  And it’s about how the inner workings of salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds provide people with jobs, clean water, and protection from erosion and storm surge.  But it’s as much about the ecologists as it is about the ecology.

Randall and David, and their graduate students- Tanya Rogers, Hanna Garland, and Althea Moore- are people who get inspired to pursue a line of research.  They get excited by an idea, like predators affecting prey more through fear than through their eating them.  They get excited about places.  David gets geeked out about predatory snails on Bay Mouth Bar.  Hanna falls in love with Apalachicola and wants to figure out its oyster problem.  Randall makes observations about things she sees in St. Joseph Bay marshes and it sets her on a path.  In one case, that path led her to the video above.

Randall’s interest in black mangroves has unfolded before our eyes on this blog, starting in 2010.  These trees have a range that ends to the south and east of here, yet here they were by her study sites.  To learn more, she started experiments.  Our Oyster Doctor premiere events on March 8 gave her a reason to come down from Massachusetts (she left the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab in January of 2013) and check on her mangrove experiments.  These experiments are growing away in the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  One of our premiere events was a walking tour of the Buffer and a visit to the experiment site.  One reason the trees have been spreading in northern Gulf marshes are the warmer winters we’d been having in recent years.  Recent cold snaps let Randall (and a group of interested parties) better see how certain sets of trees in her experiment might survive up here.  And so, as we finished the show, which has its section on the mangrove research, we went right back into the field and gained a little extra knowledge. Nature’s inner workings never stop unfolding.

Later that day, Randall joined Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for an excursion within the Apalachicola River delta. Exploring the connection between freshwater bodies and coastal ecosystems has become a focus of this project since we started our EcoAdventures segments.

Later that day, Randall joined Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for an excursion within the Apalachicola River delta. Exploring the connection between freshwater bodies and coastal ecosystems has become a focus of this project since we started our EcoAdventures segments.

In the coming months, we’ll get more posts detailing Randall and David’s findings in the studies we’ve been following.  And then… well, certainly more EcoAdventures.  Through those we can explore all of our area, connecting forests with swamps with rivers and back to the coasts, where this project was born.  As people signed up for the premiere and its associated events, we left a spot for people to tell us about their connection to our local wild spaces.  I’ll be looking those over as we move forward.  I love having a window into what all of you care about.  Likewise, this blog has a comments section!  Tell us what gets you excited about the outdoors, what you’d like to see more of, what’s not being covered?

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

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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Free Events Across Forgotten Coast Celebrate New WFSU Documentary

Update March 9, 2014 – We’d like to thank everyone who came out for one or more of our events on Saturday. It was a pleasure to meet all of you (photos will be posted soon).  If you missed the premiere, Oyster Doctors will air on WFSU-TV on Wednesday March 19, 8 pm/ 7 ct.  Look for it online shortly after.

(L to R) Graduate student Hanna Garland, WFSU videographer Dan Peeri, oysterman Shawn Hartsfield, and WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas look on as Stephanie Buehler dives in to survey oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Almost four years ago, WFSU began the coastal adventure that is In the Grass, On the Reef.  Now, we want you to join the adventure.  And not through the magic of video- we want you physically there with us (but yeah, we’ll still make a video).

On Saturday, March 8, at the Ft. Coombs Armory in Apalachicola, Florida, we’ll be premiering In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors.  It’s the culmination of these almost four years of losing my shoes in oyster reef and salt marsh mud, of kayaking to field sites in rain, waves, wind, and in those winter tides where the water all but disappears.  It’s that visceral experience, as much as the research and ecology, that we’ve tried to make a part of our videos and blog posts.  Seeing and feeling that magical place where the land meets the sea underlines the need to better understand it.

Hanna kayaks towards oyster reef experiment sites in October of 2010.

Hanna kayaks towards oyster reef experiment sites in October of 2010.

In that spirit, we’ll be having a few EcoAdventures where you, our viewers and readers, can join in the fun and get up close and personal with the wild places of our coasts.  There are three opportunities, one in each county of Florida’s Forgotten Coast and in each of its major coastal features.  These are free events, but some have limited spots available.  So register early to be a part of a lottery for these trips (winners will be selected on February 28).

A kayak tour of the animal rich marshes and oyster reefs of the Wakulla Beach unit of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  A walk through the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve to see the south Florida plant that’s more frequently popping up in north Florida marshes.  And a boat ride connecting the Apalachicola River and its bay, and those troubled oysters that are iconic of the Forgotten Coast.

With these trips, we recreate the IGOR journey in miniature.  Dr. Randall Hughes, our collaborator and one of the “oyster doctors” of our new documentary, will lead us through these first two trips.  In Wakulla Beach, she’ll be joined by Dr. William “Doc” Herrnkind, a retired FSU Coastal & Marine Lab professor and a guru when it comes to the critters that we have followed in this project.  This will be my first time meeting him, though I have heard quite a lot about him over the years from our research collaborators and even members of the community.  When the BBC wanted horse conch footage in our area, this is who they called.

Media attention at Save the Bay Day in Apalachicola

Media and community members gather in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Apalachicola. With Florida’s U.S. Senate delegation in town, residents sent a clear message: Apalachicola oysters deserve their fair share of water from the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint basin.

For our Apalachicola boat trip, we’ll be led by Apalachicola Riverkeeper‘s Dan Tonsmeire.  I could not be more pleased to have Riverkeeper involved in this event.  Participating in their RiverTrek adventures over the last two years, in addition to being a life changing experience, has added immeasurably to our coverage of the Apalachicola oyster fishery crash.  Of course, when I signed on to paddle in early 2012, I had no idea that Florida’s largest oyster fishery was so close to disaster.  Likewise, when we first applied for the National Science Foundation grant that funds this project, we wrote in a possible Apalachicola premiere not knowing that its oysters would become a large part of our story.

Since we embarked on this journey, Dr. Randall Hughes, Dr. David Kimbro and their crews have let us be there for the twists and turns, failures and successes, and ultimately the discovery that has taken their research in a fascinating new direction.  While pursuing this new direction into animal behavior and it effects on these productive ecosystems, they were also investigating oyster reef failures in drought stricken areas.  On the one hand, they have relentlessly pursued this idea that animal behavior, the menace of a predator, can influence the health of marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds.  On the other hand, does any of that matter if nature one day turns its back on these coastal habitats and cuts off the water?  It’s a question we ask as we delve into this spectacular world.  We’d love for you to join us in Apalachicola for the premiere, and join us on the water (and, I won’t lie, in the muck) as we go In the Grass, and On the Reef, one more time.

Register to attend the premiere of In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors and to participate in pre-screening EcoAdventures!

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

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Blue crabs are a commercially important species that rely on both salt marsh and oyster reef ecosystems. They are also important predators in these habitats, preying on marsh grass grazing periwinkle snails and oyster eating mud crabs.

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.