Category Archives: Notes From the Field

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Notes From the Field: Panama, Where Oysters Grow on Trees

A couple of months ago, we looked at the increasing number of mangroves surviving north of their range in Gulf coast marshes and wondered how it might change that habitat. On a research trip to Panama, Tanya Rogers got a good look at how mangroves interact with many species found in North Florida. There, oysters grow on trees.

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University

Installing predator exclusion cages in the rocky intertidal at Punta Culebra, on the Pacific coast of Panama.

Travel 1,100 miles due south of Miami, and before you know it you will collide with the Caribbean coast of Panama. Take a look around these shores and what will you find? Not just coral reefs as you might expect, but also seagrass beds, mangrove forests, and oysters – many of the same species, in fact, that are found in Florida, but arranged a bit differently. What are these oysters, seagrasses, and mangroves up to in the tropical parts of the world?

For a brief stint this summer I worked with Dr. Andrew Altieri at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, exploring ecological questions similar to those we’ve been investigating in Florida. Dr. Altieri, much like my advisor, Dr. Kimbro, is interested in the ecology of marine communities, particularly the role of foundation species and the effects of environmental stress vs. consumers/predators in determining what grows where. In the mangroves, as well as on the rocky shores of the Panamanian Pacific coast, I helped set up several experiments using the same sort of experimental techniques as we used in Florida (cages, transplantation, etc.) to answer questions about species interactions in tropical environments. I hope I have the opportunity to return to Panama in the future as part of my graduate research.

Setting up a mangrove root transplant experiment in Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean coast of Panama.

One interesting thing about the oysters in Panama (on the Caribbean side anyway) is that they grow almost exclusively on mangrove prop roots, and instead of one species, you can find up to five oyster species co-occurring. The oysters grow near the water’s surface, and below them the submerged roots can host an astonishing diversity of other marine invertebrates, including sponges, tunicates, anemones, and tube worms. I found it fascinating to swim below the mangroves, the roots like a maze of stalactites bedazzled with life of all colors and textures, fish darting through the labyrinth, the occasional crab deciding to take refuge on your head. Be on the lookout though for stinging box jellies, for they also enjoy these galleries. Just as in Florida, the mangroves and seagrass beds (which often border the mangroves), are important nursery habitats for juvenile fishes, which later venture out to the coral reefs.

A suite of co-occurring foundation species in Bocas del Toro: corals, seagrasses, mangroves, and oysters (growing on the mangrove roots).

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.

Shark tooth found in Apalachicola Bay buoy marking oyster reef experiment.

Apalachicola Oyster Research: SHARK WEEK

Since they’ve deployed their experimental cages in Apalachicola Bay, David Kimbro’s crew has had some go missing, while others have been found in this condition.  Missing buoys make potentially unharmed cages nearly impossible to find.  Until just yesterday, there have been no leads as to the identities of possible culprits.

Dr. David Kimbro Northeastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Southern Oyster Drill

Shark week? In Apalachicola Bay, oyster drills like this one are the animals that have inflicted the most damage.

I’ll eventually get to how our research on Apalachicola Bay oysters ties into shark week. But first, let me tell you about my history with the annual Shark Week, which is put on by the Discovery Channel. Growing up as a surfer in North Carolina, the best time to surf was in the late summer and early fall. After many warm months of zero waves in the spring and summer, we lived for tropical storms that would make their way into the south east….but not get too close. I hated those suckers that got too close, because fun waves would quickly turn into pigs being on the roof and lots of misfortune for my fellow North Carolinians.

Getting to the point, every August, I was barraged by the Discovery Channel with interesting stories about sharks. Cool… but as soon as the waves start coming up, I’d have all of these thoughts about sharks circling through my head. In fact, in the line-up the next morning, it was looked down upon to talk about the previous evening’s episode of Shark Week. Now, sharks are awesome and they are critical to the health of our marine environments, but I don’t like to think about them when I’m waiting for a wave.

Okay, enter our research on Apalachicola Bay’s oyster reefs. It has been a very wet summer and the waters are very murky… you can’t see squat under water. But that doesn’t deter us, because we have been full throttle this past year and especially this summer on the monitoring and experiments.

Disclaimer: the pronoun we = Nikkie and Hanna, who have to do all the diving and data collection. To be honest, I couldn’t have asked for a better graduate student and employee to lead this research project.

Nikkie with crown conch (and egg casing), found in Apalachicola Bay.

Nikkie with crown conch (and egg casing), found in Apalachicola Bay. Surveys have found that while southern oyster drills have thrived on commercially harvested reefs on the floor of the bay, conchs have been more numerous on fringe reefs.

Now, another disclaimer is that Nikkie DISLIKES not being able to see under water. So, for all of the sites that I can’t free dive to collect the data (my scientific diver certification expired…next on the to-do list to fix), I would serve as shark/alligator bait by swimming on the surface of the water for 1/2 hour while others collected data below.

To be honest, I’ve skewered Nikkie about her fear and about needing me to serve as bait. BUT… then I got an email today from the crew, which happens to be the first mission since I departed from Florida for Massachussettes. This week, my lab is undergoing a Herculean effort to set up another experiment. In doing so today, they solved mystery of who/what has messed with all of our previous experiments and they simultaneously confirmed Nikkie’s fear. These experiments are protected by welded cages and marked with buoys, which have frequently and unfortunately gone missing. This is bad for our research funds, our time and for the data we need to understand Apalachicola and its oyster reefs.

So, in the spirit of the board game Clue...who dunna it?

Freaking sharks. Given Nikkie’s significant fear and my discounting of that fear, I sure felt bad getting this message from Hanna and Nikkie today. But hey, that’s what team Kimbro does for Apalachicola oysters!

(Edit 8/11/13.  FSU Coastal and Marine Lab’s Dr. Dean Grubbs IDs it as a bull shark.  Read more on this fact sheet from NOAA, from which we leave you with this quote: “Bull sharks are one of the three top sharks implicated in unprovoked fatal attacks throughout the world.”- Rob)

Shark tooth found in Apalachicola Bay buoy marking oyster reef experiment.

Cheers,

David

See more posts and videos on the Apalachicola oyster crisis and this research.

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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Notes From the Field, Apalachicola: Measure Twice, Cut Once

Waves and wind can make an underwater experiment challenging. But in Apalachicola Bay, it’s getting to where getting enough oysters to run an experiment is a challenge in itself. On Dimensions tonight (Wednesday, May 8 at 7:30 PM/ ET), get an inside look into what it’s like to go oystering during the oyster fishery crisis. We look at the men and women fighting for the bay, and the evolving alliance between those who work the bay, and those who would study it.

Hanna Garland FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Hanna Garland and Meagan Murdock, Florida State University Coastal and Marine LabGrowing up, I always loved to help my dad with the never-ending list of house and boat projects, but because being a perfectionist is not one of my attributes, it would bother me when he would remind me to “measure twice, cut once.” However, whether taken literally or figuratively, this saying has had more relevance as I have progressed through college and now my graduate career. Take for example: the Apalachicola Bay oyster experiment.

In January, we conducted habitat surveys in order to assess the condition of oyster reefs throughout Apalachicola Bay by quantifying the oysters themselves as well as the resident crustacean and invertebrate species. We found some interesting patterns, but this survey data is just a “snapshot” in time of the oyster reef communities, so we designed an experiment that will investigate the survivorship and growth of market-size oysters in the presence or absence of predators at 12 reefs across the bay.

Live, market-sized Apalachicola Oysters epoxied to posts for an experiment in Apalachicola Bay.Mimicking the design of most of the oyster experiments in the Hugbro lab, we continue to keep the marine epoxy, mesh, and rebar companies in business by securing oysters into predator-exposed or predator-excluded treatments and then installing them onto reefs. While the habitat surveys were conducted via scuba diving (or sometimes walking because the reefs were so shallow!), we decided to give our free-diving skills a test for the oyster experiment installation in order to reduce gear and research costs. Being primarily intertidal researchers we are not accustomed to all of the logistics for subtidal research, but free diving is mostly a mind game, right?

Scuba and snorkeling gear.

The gear needed for scuba diving (left) versus free diving (right).

Wrong! Meagan and I were reminded that we will never be greater than Mother Nature or “the elements.” We were only able to install the experiment on 10 of the 12 reefs throughout the bay and due to unfavorable weather conditions and diving logistics, we were unable to complete the installation on the remaining 2 reefs or check the status of the oysters that had already been deployed. As a result, we will be restarting this experiment in May, but this time via scuba and with learned knowledge and experience of working in the bay, which will allow us to obtain a more complete and accurate experimental data set.

Buoy marking a submerged experiment in Apalachicola Bay.

These buoys mark experiment sites. Having the experiments submerged makes it otherwise invisible to passing boats and their propellors, and to oystermen and their tongs.

As frustrating as it may be to re-do the experiment, I was reminded at the recent Oyster Task Force meeting in Apalachicola, that the answer to the oyster crisis is going to take time; and in order to identify and quantify the environmental or biological stressors in the bay, research and management must be done correctly and entirely. So stay tuned, as there will need to be a lot more “measuring twice and cutting once” before we will be able to identify the key explanatory variables causing the loss of oyster habitat in Apalachicola Bay!

Music in the video by Nekronomikon Quartett.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Notes from the Field: From Technician to Tourist

Lately, the Hugh-Bro (Hughes and Kimbro) Lab has covered a lot of miles.  Dr. David Kimbro and Dr. Randall Hughes have accepted positions at Northeastern University in Boston.  Tanya Rogers is David’s first graduate student at NEU, though her dissertation is on Bay Mouth Bar at the mouth of Alligator Harbor.  Hanna Garland (who had spent a year living in Saint Augustine Beach for her graduate work with David) and Stephanie Buhler are covering Apalachicola Bay, though Stephanie will start her PhD. work in the Bahamas soon.  We’ll let Ryan Coker tell you of his East coast adventures helping Meagan Murdock wrap her National Park Service tile experiment
Ryan Coker FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Timucuan - Here I am inspecting a tile as we made our way to the next reef. Looks like these particular oysters didn't fare well, but we saw plenty that did!

For the last couple months, a lot of my responsibilities around the lab have shifted from working out in the field to processing samples from our salt marsh projects (recently, measuring the organic content of sediment samples, i.e. setting dirt on fire and calculating the missing weight). This past week I was happy to be recruited from my normal lab duties to help out on Meagan’s National Park Service oyster experiment, recovering our oyster-covered paving bricks from the experimental reefs for analysis. This meant packing my bags to leave for a six-day field trip to visit our reef sites at Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve in Jacksonville and Cumberland Island National Seashore, a barrier island off of Georgia’s coastline. I was told to prepare for precarious treks through oystershell, leg-swallowing mud, and swarms of no-see-ums who, in spite of their name, were determined to get noticed. I prepared for these challenges in earnest, with thick boots and quick feet and enough bug spray to at least suggest that eating me alive wasn’t in any insect’s best interest. But what I wasn’t ready for was the sheer beauty of these places. I feel immensely lucky to have found my calling in ecology—I do the work I love, and I get to do it in the loveliest places.

Timucuan - Meagan decided to test the depth of this mudflat to see if we could access one of our oyster reefs at very low tidal height. As she progressed downward at a rate far exceeding her forward gains, it was clear that we were going to have to wait out the tide and try again. Thank you, Meagan, for being such a champ and getting completely mud-covered while I waited on the boat, laughing and taking pictures. Here she is using my leg to pull herself out of the muck as I perched on the ledge of the pontoon boat.

Because we had a free half-day on Cumberland Island while we waited for the National Park Service to come and ferry us back to the mainland, Meagan and I set off to explore the island. We traded our boots and waders for sneakers and shorts long, bug-proof pants. Transitioning from a field tech to a tourist for just a few hours, I ran up and down the island in an attempt to see it all. It was gorgeous.

The forest was intercut with dirt paths canopied by towering palms and the twisting limbs of immense Live Oaks. The infinite beach, its width rolled out flat from delicate high-blown dunes to where it dips below the lapping ocean tide, is home to shorebirds and “wild” packs of roaming horses.

What I found most striking, though, were the crumbling skeletal remains of Dungeness, a mansion built in the 1880s, abandoned in 1925, and burnt to ruins by the 1960s.

Imagining this place in its glory, I filled in the gaps of the walls and floors where they were collapsed and covered by weeds and rubble. There’s not much left, and I didn’t dwell on my fiction overmuch, but I sure would have loved to see that mansion as it stood. It made me think about the impacts we make on the world, the legacies we’re trying to build before we go. I feel really good about the work I contribute to in the lab. To the metaphorical library of scientific knowledge, I’d like to think the work I do is helping to add-on another room. We’re in the ecology wing, expanding it out, adding just a bit to the collection. It’s our mansion, and at the very least, it’s fireproof.

Of course, mostly I just thought “Holy cow, this is gorgeous,” as I snapped away, already daydreaming about the next spectacular place I might have the opportunity to visit with the lab.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
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Notes From the Field: Hermit Crab/Crown Conch Cage Match

Last week David connected the regional dots, noticing similarities in oyster reefs overrun by oyster eating crown conchs across North Florida, from the Matanzas Reserve south of Saint Augustine to Apalachicola Bay. That included a breakdown of what they found during surveys of the Bay. Below, Hanna Garland details one of her experiments mentioned by David in the post.
Hanna Garland FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Gaining a better understanding of the beautiful yet complex habitats that border our coastlines require a significant amount of time surveying and manipulating organisms (as you may know if you have been following our research for the past three years!), and even so, there can still be limitations in whether or not we truly know what is “naturally” occurring in the system.  Unfortunately, pristine salt marshes, seagrass beds and oyster reefs are in a general state of decline worldwide; however, this only heightens our incentive to investigate further into how species interact and how this influences the services and health of habitats that we depend on for food and recreation.

For the past two and a half years we have been studying the oyster populations along 15km of estuary in St. Augustine, but it did not require fancy field surveys or experiments to notice a key player in the system: the crown conch.  Present (and very abundant!) on oyster reefs in the southern region of the estuary, but absent in the northern region, it was obvious that there were interesting dynamics going on here…and we were anxious to figure that out!

In hopes of addressing the question: who is eating whom or more importantly, who is not eating whom, we played a game of tether ball (not really!) with nearly 200 conchs of various sizes by securing each one to a PVC pole (with a 1m radius of fishing line for mobility) onto oyster reefs.  After six months (and still ongoing), the only threat to the poor snails’ survival appeared to be the thinstripe hermit crab (Clibinarius vittatus)!

Hypothesized that hermit crabs invade and occupy the shell of a larger crown conch in order to have a better home, we decided to further investigate the interactions between crown conchs and hermit crabs by placing them in a cage together (almost like a wrestling match).

After only a few days, the mortality began, and results showed a weak relationship between species and size, and appeared to be more of a “battle of the fittest”.

The implications of how the interactions between crown conchs and hermit crabs influence the oyster populations are still largely unknown, but knowing that neither species have dominance over one another is important in understanding the food webs that oyster reefs support…and that organisms occupying ornate gastropod shells can be lethal as well!

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.