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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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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The Story of 2012

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

I love how David’s story evolves in the segment above.  At first, he concentrates on the oysters and their point of view in the Apalachicola fishery crisis.  It’s the biological approach.  After workshopping his story with Randy Olson, his story takes on a different aspect.  It’s about why he’s getting involved.  It’s the personal approach.  The story is still about David and his colleagues studying the reefs in Apalachicola Bay to determine how best to rehabilitate them, but the hook is different.  It’s one of the stories we’ll be following in what should be another busy year on In the Grass, On the Reef.

Before we look forward to 2013, though, I wanted to look at the stories that made 2012 our busiest year to date:

Funded by the NSF

It took a couple of years, but in July we received a Communicating Research to Public Audiences grant from the National Science Foundation.  The name of that grant is meaningful, and it embodies a background narrative of this project: the work it takes to make an average person care about scientific research.  Researchers know why their work is important, they just don’t always know how to present why it’s interesting.  That’s why we had Dr. Olson come in and put on a workshop for research students (and Randall and David).  So why is Randall and David’s research important?

Ecology is Economy

In short, biology affects people’s livelihoods.  The seafood connection is obvious: over 90% of the species that are commercially fished in the Gulf of Mexico spend some part of their life cycles in one of the three estuarine habitats that we follow: oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds.  We saw that oysters offer more to the seafood industry than their meat.  And we’re starting to see the effects of a full-scale ecosystem failure on a community (more on that below).  The non-seafood related benefits were surprising to me.  A rugby field sized patch of salt marsh can save $8,000 in storm surge related property damage.  Seagrass beds are the most effective habitat at storing carbon from the atmosphere.  And in a state as reliant on tourism dollars as Florida, you can’t overlook the ecotourism potential of our coastlines.  Last spring, we went down to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge when migratory shore birds were making their way through.  The refuge’s vast salt marshes are an all-you-can-eat buffet for those birds, and you have to figure that without healthy rivers and coasts, our state’s multi-billion dollar wildlife watching revenue would be imperiled.

Away from the coasts, I enjoyed exploring the geology of the Aucilla Sinks and the rare plants of the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  The Buffer is part of the Apalachicola River basin, and those plants rely on that water just as the oysters in the bay do.  Which brings us to:

The Apalachicola Crisis

Apalachicola Oysters on the Half Shell

Earlier that afternoon, oystermen were demonstrating how few oysters there were in Apalachicola Bay for the Army Corps of Engineers. At a reception later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they shucked oysters for community members. Despite doubling in price over the last year, there aren't enough oysters to maintain the fishery.

At this time last year, when we were waiting to hear whether we got the NSF grant, I was looking forward to some of the things we would do.  I knew that, as we explored the economic benefits of oysters, I would end up on an oyster boat.  It would be fun to watch tongs bring up mounds of succulent Apalachicola oysters.  My first time on an oyster boat didn’t exactly go that way.  As the year wore on, I started planning for RiverTrek 2012.  That was every bit as amazing an experience as I expected it to be, but Helen Light’s presentation on the state of the basin that first night underscored everything that happened after.  Crisis drives a lot of media coverage; it attracts viewers.  I don’t think Apalachicola needs crisis to be interesting, though.  I first visited in 2002 while working on WFSU’s Our Town series.  Each Our Town episode first aired during a pledge drive, and Our Town: Apalachicola was far and away the most successful, with over 50 new members pledging their support to our station.  And it was my favorite.  A couple of months after we premiered it at the Dixie Theatre, I came back for my birthday.  My wife and I camped out on St. George Island, went across the bay to get oysters and had drinks at the Gibson Inn.  So this isn’t the story I wanted to tell.  But there is something to be learned from this about oyster reef ecology and our connection to it.

As David and his crew gear up to investigate more closely, that story will continue here.  Also, Randall and David’s two multi-year, NSF funded studies are concluding.  They put their ideas to the test:  Does the fear of being eaten by large predators have a significant effect on coastal ecosystems and all that they give us?  And, it’s a word we hear a lot, but what role does biodiversity play in the success of a salt marsh and its services?  Stay tuned.

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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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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Notes from the Field: Getting the Dirt

Althea Moore, Florida State University Graduate Student

Recently I went on a trip to Cedar Key, a few hours south of the Florida panhandle where I do most of my research. The coastline there looks very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a grassy marsh, the edge of the water in this area is dominated by intertidal black mangrove trees (Avicennia germinans), with small areas of marsh scattered around the trees. I was there collecting dirt for my new experiment. You might be wondering at this point why I would go all that way just to collect dirt?

Well, the dirt itself is home to a community of tiny microbes like fungi and bacteria that interact with plants and can help them grow. I am studying how these microbes may help mangroves get started as seedlings. Check out my project, featuring some footage of my trip to Cedar Key. My site is part of an innovative ‘crowd funding’ project called SciFund Challenge that helps scientists raise money for research while also reaching out to the public. This type of science funding is a fairly new concept, at least to me.

After a peer review process, I posted my project on the RocketHub SciFund Challenge website, which is an exchange (not a charity) where people ‘fuel’ my project in exchange for ‘rewards’ like naming rights to one of my mangrove seedlings. The funds I raise through the website are treated as a gift to FSU but are still slated for my project. So far it has been fun and interesting to share my research with a broader audience. I’ve already met my minimum goal, but the more I raise, the more microbes I’ll be able to analyze and the more I’ll be able to understand about marsh and mangrove ecosystems. Feel free to stop by my site, watch the video, and track my progress!

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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