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.
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.
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.
Episode 3: Studying Nature Involves Visiting and Standing in Nature
In a couple of weeks we’ll dive right in and look at oyster reefs and their surprising value. In the weeks following, we’ll do the same with salt marshes, seagrass beds, and with the unique diversity of Bay Mouth Bar. Right now, we hope you enjoy watching the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls get their footing in the intertidal zone.
The first question I was asked when I became involved in the In the Grass, On the Reef project was if I was afraid to go out in the field and get a little dirty. “Of course not!” was my response. I have always been a fan of the outdoors and love scalloping and kayaking, so of course I would love this. I guess I was expecting to be in the water more than anything. After all, we couldn’t really be going out into anything too messy, right?
The first few shoots I went on were great and went about how I expected they would. But after a few weeks we went to Wakulla Beach, where I discovered exactly why I was asked that particular question when I was hired. Not fully prepared for my experience that day, I had quite a time trying to walk through the mud without getting sucked in knee-deep and losing my shoes, causing others to slow down and get stuck as well while they were trying to help me out. After clawing my way out and finally escaping the mud, I walked on an oyster reef for the first time. While the mud was not nearly as bad at this point, I am a terribly clumsy person. Luckily, I was able to keep my footing and avoid falling on top of oyster shells.
Although it was exhausting, I still enjoyed my Wakulla Beach experience, as I’ve come to call it. It was definitely a learning experience for me and I loved being able to see the sunset over the reefs. I have yet to master the “quick, light steps” needed to defeat the mud, but I definitely have an appreciation for what our scientists, and many others, go through to set up experiments and collect their data. I also love that getting out in the water (and mud) are a part of my job, not to mention that we get to see some really cool things. Every shoot is a new experience and I notice more about the environment and the animals each time I go out.
And Also, the Animal Experience
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Animals with claws suited to tearing through oyster shell can, unsurprisingly, injure you.
One thing we didn’t mention in the video above or in Rebecca’s post are the animals at the sites, which you definitely have to keep an eye out for. Members of the Hughes and Kimbro labs have been pinched by blue crabs and have encountered the occasional snake in the marsh. There are small sharks, the possibility of alligators, and the sting rays that we see and shuffle our feet to avoid stepping on and startling. You keep an eye out for those knowing that they’re a potential danger, though not a pressing threat. During last week’s shoots in Saint Augustine, however, events in the news had us paying serious attention to the smallest animals that are also the ones that attack us most relentlessly. Our country is in the midst of perhaps its worst ever outbreak of West Nile virus. Mosquitos are a fact of the coast. During the day, there is usually enough of a breeze to keep them off you; but since the work we follow is tidally based, activities can occur before sunrise or after sunset, when mosquitos are at their worst. Alligators may look scarier, but it pays to know what the most pressing threat is.
In September we’ll tour our coastal ecosystems and learn why we love them. These next couple of weeks, we’ll get a fresh set of eyes on Randall and David’s world of research and ecology as the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls visit the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
When you think of your summer vacations during middle school, what do you think of? The first thing that comes to my mind is HOT (it was south Georgia, after all), and the next thing is Duke. I realize that is somewhat sacrilegious for someone who went to UNC-Chapel Hill for undergrad (at least if you care anything about basketball). But I spent 4 summers as a student at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, better known as TIP, and my 3 weeks spent there each summer definitely stand out in my mind.
It sounds horrible to most people – 3 weeks during summer vacation spent taking an intensive course that would typically last a semester. Although we spent a lot of time in class and studying, in many ways it was like any other summer camp, with time spent goofing off with really interesting and fun classmates from all over the country. I even crossed paths with some of my fellow TIPsters in graduate school!
So what does this have to do with In the Grass, On the Reef? In many ways, nothing. But in some ways, everything. Because one of those summers I took Marine Biology at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, and it was there that I fell in love with doing research on coastal systems (and did my first experiment on fiddler crabs!). Admittedly, it still took me a while to figure out how to turn that into a career, but I’m not sure that I would be where I am today were it not for 3 weeks during the summer before 8th grade.
Enter the SciGirls. For the last 4 summers, I’ve been thrilled to participate in the SciGirls summer camp run by WFSU and the National High Magnet Field Laboratory (aka, the Mag Lab), aimed at introducing middle and high school girls to careers in science. Although the SciGirls program is structured differently from the TIP program that I participated in, it provides me an opportunity to share my love of field research with some really amazing girls, and hopefully to plant the seed in their minds that they can turn their love of science into a career too.
This year, in addition to explaining my research to the SciGirls and getting their help collecting data, we talked about the importance of being able to communicate what you’re doing to others. It turns out that explaining research to non-scientists is not something that scientists are trained to do, and it doesn’t always come easy. So we decided to start early with the SciGirls and see what happens! As you can see from the video, they quickly grasped what they needed to do and were quite comfortable with the camera. There were some discrepancies among the observations, but hey, that’s why we take lots of data – you can’t always see the overall pattern when you’re only looking at a subset of the information!
The circle is complete. Randall was once the middle school student being led into a marsh for the first time, she is now the one leading middle school girls in. Might this fiddler crab have inspired someone into a career in research?
After a lunch break and a look at the results of our data collection, we headed to the field. This part of the day is always my favorite – watching the girls explore, answering their excited questions, helping them pick up their first fiddler crab, assuring them their shoes / clothes will come clean. Even a short rainstorm didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. I would venture a guess that when these girls look back on their middle school summer vacation, their memories of SciGirls will be front and center.
For more on the SciGirls’ day at FSUCML, check out their blog. And check back next week for video of their experiences in the grass (and mud)!
Music in the video by grapes. In the Grass, On the Reef theme music by Lydell Rawls.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
This time around, everything is both familiar yet new.
On the new tiles, spat are glued on with a mixture used to repair boat hulls.
I recently went to Saint Augustine to document the second version of Dr. David Kimbro and Dr. Randall Hughes’ tile experiment. The basic concept is this: attach a certain amount of oyster spat (larval oysters- basically little blobs in the process of growing and building shells) to tiles, leave them on or by oyster reefs and see how they grow, or if they are eaten. I’ll let Randall and David explain the intricacies of the experiment when we post those videos in January. Or, you could watch our coverage of that first experiment, conducted in the fall of 2010. Watching that video and then watching our new videos on the experiment, you’ll notice that both the approach to the experiment and to the video coverage have evolved. After the Kimbro lab spent so many long days scrambling to collect spat, The 2010 experiment didn’t succeed like they’d hoped. Likewise, our communication of their research, and the importance of the ecology of intertidal ecosystems, didn’t quite succeed like I had hoped. I like watching the old videos; I just don’t think they did what we wanted them to. But you learn, and hopefully, you improve.
This time around, I was struck by how orderly everything was at the Whitney Lab as the oyster crew prepared their tiles. No more scrambling out at low tide to collect oysters; they had hired someone to breed spat from oysters spanning the Eastern seaboard. The current tile design and construction had been tested, and would withstand the elements. Randall and David had learned lessons, and were efficiently implementing their new plan. But what had I learned?
This attractive gastropod, seen in the video above, is a busycon snail wrapped around an atlantic moon snail that it just happens to be eating. Nature videos have a cast of human, animal, and plant characters.
Early last year, WFSU had a moment equivalent to that of the Hug-Bro labs’ realization that the glue on their initial tiles couldn’t withstand the waves at their sites. The National Science Foundation had rejected our grant application to fund this project. After a few months of following their studies and a couple dozen videos, a panel of reviewers let us know everything they thought we did wrong. That was fun.
When Randall, David, Kim Kelling-Engstrom (WFSU’s Educational Services Director) and I decided to reapply for the grant, we needed a new narrative for what it was that we wanted to communicate. What was our story? If you watch our old videos, we’re very narrowly focused on experiments and field work. There’s a lack of perspective on the impact of the ecosystems on our area, a lack of local color from the excellent locations we visit, and I kind of feel like we could have better captured what a day on a salt marsh or oyster reef was like. The new application reflected more of the world around the reefs and marshes, and the people who need them. If you’ve watched the video above, you may have figured that this time, our application was successful.
The red snapper being held by Ike Thomas, owner of My Way Seafood, was caught in 150 feet of water. Before reaching market size, younger snapper are one of many fish species that forage on oyster reefs.
I’m finding the new videos are more fun to put together. We’re exploring the area more, talking to more people, and it’s easier to spot the animals we care about and get footage of them. And with funding we have some extra staff helping on the blog and on shoots (like new associate producer Rebecca Wilkerson). The upcoming videos are like the new tiles sitting in their cages off of Saint Augustine oyster reefs: they are the product of some hard won knowledge. That experiment ends soon and they’ll see if they get the data they needed to meet their larger goals. We, on the other hand, are just getting started, and we hope that you’ll keep joining us as we explore that area where the land meets the sea.
Over the next couple of weeks, we see the WFSU SciGirls visit the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab to learn about what Randall does: in the marsh, at the lab, and in front of the camera. It gets a little messy. In September, we go in the field with Randall and David onto oyster reefs and into seagrass beds and salt marshes.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.