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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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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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

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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
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SciGirls Tallahassee (and Rebecca) Cope with Marsh Mud

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.
Rebecca Wilkerson WFSU-TV

SciGirls' mudy feetThe 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 Villegas WFSU-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.

Listen to last Thursday’s Talk of the Nation on preventing West Nile.

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.