Category Archives: In the (Sea) Grass

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Interning at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab: Hands On

Video: Interns at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, FL, get hands on experience working with marine life and equipment.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We’re on a boat, speeding through Apalachee Bay on our way back to land.  We’ve accompanied Cypress Rudloe and two Gulf Specimen Marine Lab interns on a trip to collect samples.  Buckets full of octopus and sea urchins slosh as I take a good look to my left and right and get a firm perspective of where I am.  We’re several miles from the St. Marks Lighthouse; it stands out unmistakably as it was designed to do.  Smoke unfurls over it and into the Gulf, from a controlled burn on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  I look left and see the mouth of the Ochlockonee River, and follow the contour of the land as it curls out of sight to Alligator Point.  These interns are preparing for a life that keeps them in places like this.  Bravo.

P1080062-smallerOf course, it’s more than merely being outdoors that they’re getting out of the deal.  They’re learning about sea turtle rescue, collecting specimens in the wild, and outreach activities.  This includes leading tours and taking the Seamobile out to where kids who don’t always make it to the coast can touch a horseshoe crab.  The day after our trip, the Seamobile is going to Thomasville, GA for a festival.  The stingray and horse conch that inhabit the tank at the rear of the mobile aquarium will be traveling dozens of miles from their home, but to a place bound to their home nonetheless.  Making that connection is part of the educational outreach that interns perform.

“We take the Seamobile around and do programs on sea turtles, coastal watersheds, marine invertebrates,” Tom Harrah told me as he loaded some critters into one of its tanks.  Tom manages the Seamobile and the intern program at Gulf Specimen.

Just a few miles west of Thomasville is the upper Ochlockonee River.  This makes it a part of Apalachee Bay’s coastal watershed.    If rivers are the strings that connect places like Thomasville to the bay, then standing on this boat I am over a knot.  Two watersheds meet here, the Ochlockonee and St. Marks, rivers whose mouths I can alternately see by turning my head one way or the other.  Somewhat by design, every video I’ve produced over the last few months tugs at this knot, and standing here I trace my way backwards to farms and through underwater caves.

Both Full Earth and Turkey Hill Farms compost using fish waste. The compost should release less nitrogen into waterways.  Both farms are near rivers that drain into Apalachee Bay, so a more efficient means of fertilizing their crops helps keep the watershed cleaner, ultimately benefiting the species that provide fuel to their plants.

Both Full Earth and Turkey Hill Farms compost using fish waste. The compost should release less nitrogen into waterways than synthetic fertilizers. Both farms are near rivers that drain into Apalachee Bay, so a more efficient means of fertilizing their crops helps keep the watershed cleaner, ultimately benefiting the species that provide fuel to their plants.

In our last segment we covered two farms in the Ochlockonee watershed.  Full Earth Farm co-managers Katie Harris and Aaron Suko are cognizant of where their farm is in relation to the river, and it influences the way they work their land.  “We don’t want to negatively impact the local waterways and the groundwater.” Aaron told me. “That’s, I’d say, one of the primary reasons we don’t use synthetic fertilizers.”  In our first segment on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, I talked to Louise Divine.  She and her husband, Herman Holley, run Turkey Hill Farm just east of Tallahassee, and near to a small waterway named Black Creek.  Like Full Earth, Turkey Hill is an organic food grower.  And like Aaron and Katie, Louise and Herman are well aware of their place in the watershed.  “I think about it every day.” Louise said.  “I think about it when I drive down the highway and I see Roundup sprayed everywhere.  And I know that that Roundup ends up in Black Creek and I know that Black Creek goes into the St. Marks and I- it makes me insane.”

Excess nitrates from fertilizers figure prominently in stories we’ve done on Wakulla Springs.  It runs off of lawns in Tallahassee and down streets, into sinkhole lakes like Upper Lake Lafayette or into Lake Munson, a heavily polluted waterway that drains into Ames Sink.  Dye trace tests have linked Ames Sink to the springs, its water running through one of the largest underground cave systems in the country.  Nine miles or so after its water emerges from Wakulla Spring, the Wakulla River meets up with the St. Marks.  Wakulla Spring has suffered from an increase an algae due to excess nitrates.  Perhaps due to tidal influence, the lower river’s water appears to be cleaner.

Chloe Jackson is an honors biology student at Florida State University.  She interned at the Gulf Specimen Lab over the summer, and is currently using their dock for an experiment using recruitment tiles (which should look somewhat familiar for those of you who've been following In the Grass, On the Reef over the last few years).

Chloe Jackson is an honors biology student at Florida State University. She interned at the Gulf Specimen Lab over the summer, and is currently using their dock for an experiment using recruitment tiles (which should look somewhat familiar for those of you who followed In the Grass, On the Reef over the last few years).

Both the St. Marks and the Ochlockonee provide an important influx of freshwater to coastal ecosystems.  “There’s a high level of biodiversity in this area” Tom Harrah said.  “There are a lot of rivers coming into the ocean, dumping nutrients.  And there’s just animals everywhere.”*

Tom was new to the area when he volunteered at Gulf Specimen as an FSU biology major.  Eight years later, he’s still here working and enjoying these natural resources.  Intern Cara Borowski’s love of these natural resources manifested itself in a different way, as we cover in the video above.  For her, the thrill is getting kids interested in ecology and fostering a spirit of stewardship.  When she entered the program, she was aiming to be a research biologist.  Now, she’s thinking more about education.  Without an opportunity to host field trips and take the Seamobile to schools, she might never have considered this career path.

 *If you’re confused about the roles of nutrients, which can cause lethal algal blooms but also provide a foundation for all life on earth, I’ll direct you to this blog post written by Dr. David Kimbro about the nitrogen cycle.

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Scalloping Saint Joseph Bay Seagrass Beds: Video

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Double Rainbow

I figured it was a good sign that our first glimpse of Saint Joseph Bay was of it under a double rainbow.  Of course, that required me to ignore all of the rain clouds that caused the rainbows, and some of the far off lightning I saw on our drive to Port Saint Joe.  But why head into my shoot with a negative attitude?  It didn’t take long for the sun to come out after we got on Captain Bobby Guilford’s boat.  I can’t control the weather, but if I could, I’d have arranged it like it turned out.  First, some clouds and precipitation for the rainbow shot, and then the sun we needed to shoot in seagrass beds and, more importantly, to see the scallops we were there to find.  Florida weather is just as often a friend to my shoots as it is a nasty nemesis.

This was a segment I’d been wanting to do since the first summer of the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  I spent a lot of time in Saint Joseph Bay following Dr. Randall Hughes’ salt marsh research, and when scallop season started I would see people head into the bay with buckets, kayaking out with buckets, or zipping by on boats.  Scallops are some of my favorite food.   In the Grass, On the Reef could just as easily have been called Getting to Know the Places Where the Food I Like Lives.  And I did get to know about seagrass beds, and snorkel in Saint Joe Bay looking for shots of horse conchs, sea stars, and even scallops.  What I learned in my time with Randall and her colleague, Dr. David Kimbro, is that seagrass beds are really cool!

Seagrass beds are remarkable ecosystems, and they’re a big part of why I love going back to Saint Joseph Bay as well as other locations on the Forgotten Coast.  Here are some of the cool things I learned about them from my collaborators’ research:

Seagrasses and Blue Carbon

Dr. Macreadie looks through seagrass bedIn 2012, Dr. Peter MacReadie visited Randall in Saint Joseph Bay from the University of Technology in Sydney.  We talked to he and Randall about ecosystem services provided by seagrass beds, and Peter talked to us about the surprising ability of seagrass beds to store carbon from the atmosphere.  As Randall points out in a 2012 post, their storage ability is on par with forests.

Robert Paine/ Keystone Species

Horse Conch on Bay Mouth Bar

Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantea)

Our local seagrass beds house a wealth of diversity.  Dr. Robert Paine studied Bay Mouth Bar, just off of Alligator Point, over fifty years ago.  The bar may have the greatest diversity of predatory snails in the world. His observations of the top predator- the horse conch- and the rest of the animals on the bar when the horse conch was present versus when it left in the winter, were influential in Paine’s pioneering of the keystone species concept. The horse conch consumes other snails, keeping their numbers in check so that those snails don’t in turn consume too many clams. The clams benefit the seagrass by filtering water, and so the horse conch is of vital importance to clams and to the habitat. As we know, David Kimbro is very much interested in predators, and so it is natural that he would spend years following up on Paine’s work, even unfunded.

(The one clam that horse conchs eat is the largest you can find in our seagrass beds, the pen shell. That’s what we see Bobby and Adrianne eating in the video above.)

Predator Diversity Loss

True Tulip Snail eating a Banded Tulip Snail

True tulip (Fasciolaria tulipa) eating a banded tulip (Fasciolaria hunteria).

While it’s great that seagrass beds help combat global climate change, provide habitat for scallops and other seafood species, and help filter water, they unfortunately are a habitat on the decline. As seagrass beds shrink, they tend to house a less diverse assemblage of animals. David Kimbro’s graduate student, Tanya Rogers, used a local seagrass habitat to look at the effects of losing diversity. Specifically, the loss of a top predator. David and Tanya have been conducting a follow up to Robert Paine’s Bay Mouth Bar research in the early 1960s. Five decades later, they found that the seagrass beds there are shrinking, and certain snail species have disappeared. This includes the true tulip snail and murex, which are still plentiful in Saint Joseph Bay. The true tulip was a major predator on Bay Mouth Bar. Tanya conducted an experiment to determine how the loss of this predator would affect the clams in the sediment, and how those clams in turn affected the sediment where the seagrass grows. Did the loss of habitat force the tulip off of the bar, or did the loss of tulip (which eats clam consuming snails) help cause the seagrass habitat to shrink?

Ocean Acidification

As global temperatures rise, the ocean is acidifying. This will have increasing ramifications for the plants and animals living in saltwater ecosystems, such as the oysters, clams, and scallops whose shells will weaken. However, recent research shows that seagrass beds might fight that acidification.  Good news for the clams and scallops that live there!

Seagrass bed in St. Joseph Bay, FL

Music in the video by pitx.

Saint Joseph Bay scallop, shucked and ready to eat

Shucking a Saint Joseph Bay Scallop: Video

Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions.  Tune in to watch our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure.  We snorkel  seagrass beds, see some fun critters, and breathe underwater with the Snuba.  We also eat some tasty scallops.  But you can’t taste these guys if they’re still in their shells.  Below, Captain Bobby Guilford of Break-A-Way Charters shows us how to shuck our catch.  Captain Bobby took us out on the water in July, and he gave us this quick demo:

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Another season of EcoAdventures is so close we can almost taste it.  Next week, it’ll taste like bay scallops as we return to Saint Joseph Bay not for science, but to enjoy the products of the seagrass bed ecosystem.  Saint Joe Bay is of course where we’ve been partnering with Dr. Randall Hughes to explore the inner workings of salt marshes and seagrass beds.  Just a bunch of grass?  Not if you like seafood.  Randall will have more about what she’s learned from Saint Joe Bay next week.

P1060980This summer we also spent some time with the WFSU/ FSU Mag Lab SciGirls.  Their annual two week whirlwind through the many aspects of science takes them on a few choice EcoAdventures of their own.  We accompany them to Tall Timbers Research Station as they get to know pine flatwoods ecology in the best way possible- by trapping birds and handling snakes, of course!  Our area is blessed with some of the best examples of longleaf pine forest, an ecosystem that thrives with fire.  We’ll see how various animal species (like those birds and snakes) benefit from burning.

Pied billed grebe at Wakulla SpringsWe also soak the SciGirls in our Water Moves game.  In our last video centering on the game, we followed water from urban Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs, passing through troubled waterways Munson Slough and Lake Munson.  That piece spent most of its time on the game and learning about the Leon County side of the Wakulla Springs watershed.  In our upcoming video, we visit Wakulla Springs itself.  It is an ecological marvel that’s had it’s share of troubles, but can still wow you with impressive sites and an abundance of wildlife.

And there’s more to come.  This year it’s all about connectivity- between lands and waters, between people and the natural spaces around them.  You can see from our new video open that we’ve seen some cool stuff over the last few years.  What would you like to see coming up?

In next week’s video, Captain Bobby also shucks one of these…

Dr. Randall Hughes holds large clam in St. Joe Bay

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

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

IGOR chip- habitat 150IGOR chip- filtration 150
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.

Seagrass beds “down under”

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- habitat 150As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve spent the last 6 weeks or so on a research trip to Australia. Most of my time was spent at the University of Technology in Sydney, but for the last 2 weeks, I traveled to Port Phillip Bay (the bay that Melbourne is on) to meet with some colleagues about their seagrass resilience project. One of our days was spent snorkeling around their field sites. The video above was taken by Dr. Peter Macreadie, and it provides a great sense of just how pretty these seagrass sites are. (I make a cameo snorkeling nearby in the blue shorts.) It was chilly (~ 70 degrees in and out of the water), but it was fun to take a look around!

Lake MacQuarie, near Sydney. In Randall's last post, she describes the research they did on foundation species like oysters, algae, and clams.