Category Archives: On the Reef

Dr. David Kimbro studies predator-prey relationships in the oyster reefs and salt marshes of Florida’s Gulf coast.


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.


The Apalachicola Bay Situation Report: A Quick Take

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
The leaders of SMARRT look on as Dr. Karl Havens presents the Apalachicola Bay Oyster Task Force's report.

The leaders of SMARRT look on as Dr. Karl Havens presents the Oyster Task Force’s report.

This past Wednesday researchers from the University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team presented their report on the state of Apalachicola Bay to a public audience at the Apalachicola Community Center.  In the months since a Fishery Disaster was declared in the bay, this task force was formed by researchers from the University of Florida and our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro (who was at Florida State University and is now at Northeastern).  They collected and analyzed historical sets of data and collected new data from the field to look at current conditions, their causes, and potential future actions aimed at restoration.  Here is a quick look at what was discussed:

  • In his introductory presentation, Dr. Karl Havens (Director of Florida Sea Grant) included an image in his PowerPoint depicting how the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Basin was affected by recent drought conditions.  He called attention to an area of extreme red, approximately over the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers in Georgia, stating that “in 2011, and 2012, it was the driest place in the entire United States.”  Those rivers feed the Apalachicola.
  • Landings data (oyster harvest reported) show a sharp decline in oysters between August and September of 2012.  The suddenness of the decline, said Dr. Havens, is not consistent with overfishing, which results in a gradual drop. (Page 12 of the report)
  • Dr. Steve Otwell cautioned that the reputation of Apalachicola oysters is being tainted by undersized oysters making it to restaurants.  It was acknowledged by representatives of SMARRT that certain individuals do harvest sub-legal oysters, and that a goal of SMARRT is to educate seafood workers about the legal catch sizes and the reasons behind them. When it comes to sub-legal oysters reaching consumers, Franklin County Seafood Workers President Shannon Hartsfield said, “It takes two.”  Someone has to harvest and bring a sub-legal oyster to the dock, and someone has to buy and sell it to restaurants.  SMARRT is the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team, an organization made up of seafood workers and buyers.
  • The report finds that the three inch legal size is effective in preventing “size overfishing,” if it is properly enforced. (Pages 12-13)
  • Concern was raised over out-of-state oysters replacing Apalachicola oysters in restaurants, and whether Apalachicola could regain the market.  Dr. Otwell pointed to Chesapeake Bay, which had its fishery collapse only to rebound as a premium product.
  • Using their ECOSPACE modeling tool, they projected the recovery of the bay under several scenarios.  The worst case scenario has the bay recovering in 2020.  That’s with no shelling or reduction in harvesting.  Reducing effort in 2013 and 2014 would bring it back a couple of years faster, but the best scenario is a harvesting reduction and an increase in shelling (200 acres a year for 5 years).  That scenario predicts recovery by 2015. (Page 17)
  • Three years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, people are still concerned about the possibility of oil contaminated seafood.  Tests of oysters, blue crabs, shrimp and fish species showed little or no trace of chemicals associated with crude oil or dispersants. (Page 19)
  • Hanna Garland installs a rebar cage on the floor of the Apalachicola Bay, in which her and David's experiments will be safe from oyster tongs and boat props.

    Hanna Garland installs a rebar cage on the floor of the bay, in which her and David’s experiments will be safe from oyster tongs and boat props.  We will have videos explaining the experiment in the coming weeks.

    One goal of the Task Force is to set up ongoing sampling of the bay.  The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has surveyed oysters living on the most harvested reefs in the bay, and that data was used in the computer modeling.  But where that work looked at number of oysters (legal and sub-legal), a more thorough look at conditions on the reef was deemed necessary.  That’s what David Kimbro and Hanna Garland have been working on.  They have already completed their survey of the bay and presented a snapshot of predator distribution, reef structure, oyster size, and of oyster mortality (Many of the oysters on the floor of the bay are “gapers.”  When they die, their shells open permanently).  You can read a brief summary of his results here.  Hanna is currently deploying an experiment featuring live oysters and spat tiles (watch a video on the Kimbro/ Hughes lab’s use of spat tiles here).  Through this, they will learn how spat (the next generation of oysters) and adults are surviving conditions in the bay, how well spat are growing, and how many are being eaten by predators.

  • Dr. Otwell had an interesting solution to two problems: harvesting crown conchs.  Those who have followed this blog (or harvest oysters) know that crown conchs can become a real nuisance on oyster reefs (though a potential benefactor of the equally productive salt marsh system).  A crown conch fishery would provide some income for seafood workers while relaxing the effects of a predator that can get out of hand when the water gets saltier (like in recent drought conditions). (Page 28)
crown conch meat

The queen conch (Strombus gigas) is a popular delicacy, but it is under current consideration as an endangered species. Interest is growing in using the related crown conch (Melongena corona, shown above) as a substitute meat.

The hope is that some of the partnerships and research work can continue despite a lack of funding, and even after the fishery recovers.  “I’ve said it over and over and over again, most of our information comes from the really extreme low events,” said Dr. Bill Pine.  “And we don’t know how these systems look during normal flow or high events.”  As he pointed out, research doesn’t always get done when the system is healthy, and that leaves gaping holes in the data.  Likewise, this unprecedented collaboration between seafood workers, the state agencies that manage the fishery, and the research community was created in crisis.  Will it survive as the fishery recovers?

Download a PDF of the full report here.

Coming up

The meeting on Wednesday was part of one of our busiest months of production for In the Grass, On the Reef.  This week alone, we went from one end of our viewing area to another, starting with an EcoAdventure on Slave Canal (towards the eastern end of our range) to Choctowhatchee Bay for a look at a different kind of oyster restoration project (that’s as far west as we air).  We tagged along on an oystering trip and got footage for videos dealing with another coastal ecosystem susceptible to drought: the salt marsh.  We’ve logged a lot of miles, and I have a lot of footage to put together.  Here is a preview:

David’s Apalachicola Bay research is funded by Florida Sea Grant.

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

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

Can crabs hear? (A testament to the benefits of collaboration)

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the ecology of fear in oyster reefs. What makes oysters too scared to eat, potentially keeping them from reaching market size or filtering water? What makes mud crabs too scared to eat oysters, giving the oysters a better chance to succeed? New research by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro might change the way we understand fear in mud crabs.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150When we started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, Rob (WFSU-TV Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas) embarked on a crash course learning about oyster reefs and salt marshes, biodiversity, and non-consumptive predator effects.  While you’re most likely familiar with those first few terms, the last one – non-consumptive effects – is a bit of a mouthful and hasn’t exactly made the list of new slang words of 2013.  The term refers to the ability of predators to SCARE their prey even when they don’t EAT them, causing the prey to hide, or eat less, or change their size/shape to make it less likely that they will be eaten.  Of course, these changes are only possible if the prey realizes the predator is there before getting eaten!  There are several “cues” that prey can use: (1) they can see them (visual cues); (2) they can feel them (physical cues); or (3) they can “smell” them (chemical cues).  This last category is really common in the ocean, especially with slimy snail or fish predators that give off lots of chemicals into the water!

As Rob was learning more about the fish predators that we find on our oyster reefs, he discovered audio clips of the sounds that several of these fish make.  Putting 2 and 2 together, he posed a simple question to David and me: Can mud crabs use fish sounds as a cue that their predators are near?

Housam collecting juvenile clams attached to oyster shells for use in the experiment.

To be quite honest, David and I didn’t have an answer.  But, we knew how to find out – do the experiment(s)!  We enlisted Housam Tahboub, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Flint, who wanted to do his summer Honors project in our labs.  (Little did he know what he was getting into.)  And then we set off on a crash course in bioacoustics, underwater speakers, and crab torture chambers (more on that in a minute).

Rob’s question really has 2 parts:
(1) Can crabs hear (anything)? (They don’t have ears.)
(2) Do crabs respond to the sounds of their fish predators?

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

To answer #1, we paired up with Dr. David Mann at the University of South Florida. Dr. Mann is an expert in bioacoustics, and particularly in evaluating whether marine critters (primarily fish) can hear different sounds. We modified his methods slightly to accommodate our crabs – basically, we needed to immobilize the crabs on a ‘stretcher’ so that we could insert one electrode near the crab’s antennae, and another in the body cavity to pick up any background “noise” the crab may be produce that was not in response to the acoustic stimuli. Although I know it looks like crab torture, all the crabs survived the experiment!

A mud crab submerged in the acoustic chamber

A crab submerged in the acoustic chamber.

Once the crab was immobilized and the electrodes were in place, we submerged the crab in a tank full of seawater that had an underwater speaker in it. We then played a series of acoustic stimuli of different volumes and frequencies and quantified the response recorded by the electrode. The really nice thing about this method is that we don’t have to train the crabs to tell us when they hear the noise like in the hearing tests that you and I take!

A marked oyster shell with juvenile clams glued on it as a crab buffet.

To tackle question #2, we set up a mesocosm experiment at FSUCML. Each mesocosm (aka, bucket) had sediment, a layer of loose oyster shell to serve as habitat for the crabs, and 5 mud crabs that we collected from nearby oyster reefs. We also added some juvenile clams glued to a few marked oyster shells in each mesocosm – this way, we could count the number of clams eaten over time and determine whether crabs were eating more or less in response to the predator sounds.

To run the experiment, we downloaded sound clips of several different crab predators – toadfish, black drum, and hardhead catfish – as well as 2 non-predators to serve as controls – snapping shrimp and a silent recording. Housam put these on his iPod, connected it to an amplifier and underwater speaker, and we were ready to begin.

(Well, let’s be honest, it wasn’t quite that simple. Housam read a lot of papers to figure out the best methods, spent lots of time collecting crabs, and logged lots of hours (both day and night, in the company of mosquitoes and biting flies) moving the speaker from tank to tank before we finally settled on a good protocol. He even tried all of this in the field! But when his summer ended, Tanya, Phil, and Ryan kindly stepped in to run the rest of the trials we needed.)

But we didn’t stop there. We know from our earlier experiments with Kelly Rooker (another undergraduate researcher) that the crabs don’t eat as much when exposed to water that hardhead catfish have been swimming in, most likely because they can detect chemicals in the water that the fish give off. So which cue generates a stronger response – chemical cues or sound cues? Time for another experiment!

Phil checks on the mesocosm experiment at FSUCML

In this version, the mesocosms were assigned to one of 4 combinations: (1) a silent recording, paired with water pumped from a tank holding 2 hardhead catfish into the mesocosm; (2) a recording of a hardhead catfish, paired with water that did not go through the catfish tank; (3) a recording of a hardhead catfish, paired with water from the catfish tank; (4) a silent recording, paired with water that did not go through the catfish tank. We again looked at the number of clams eaten over time to see how the crabs change their behavior.

This project has been a lot of fun, and it never would have happened were it not for Rob’s curiosity. We gave a preview of our results at the Benthic Ecology conference in Savannah, GA, last weekend. But we’ll have to wait until everything is reviewed by other scientists and published in a scientific journal before we can share all of the details here. So stay tuned!

Music in the piece by zikweb.

Black Drum recording used in the video courtesy of James Locascio and David Mann, University of South Florida College of Marine Science.

Catfish and toadfish recordings copyright University of Rhode Island.  They were obtained from, under these terms:

Copyright 2002-2007, University of Rhode Island, Office of Marine Programs. All Rights Reserved. No material from this Web site may be copied, reproduced, re-published, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way except that you may download one copy of the materials on any single computer for non-commercial, personal, or educational purposes only, provided that you (1) do not modify such information and (2) include both this notice and any copyright notice originally included with such information. If material is used for other purposes, you must obtain permission from the University of Rhode Island. Office of Marine Programs to use the copyrighted material prior to its use.

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


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.

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.


Predatory Snails Overrunning Florida Oyster Reefs

A couple of years ago, David wrote about what seemed to be a very locally contained problem.  An out of control population of crown conchs was decimating oyster reefs south of Saint Augustine. Now, he’s seeing that problem in other Florida reefs, including those at the edges Apalachicola Bay. In reviewing his crew’s initial sampling of the bay, he sees that the more heavily harvested subtidal reefs are being assaulted by a different snail.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Along the Matanzas River south of St. Augustine Florida, Phil Cubbedge followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by harvesting and selling oysters for a living. But this reliable income became unreliable and non-existent sometime around 2005. Then, Phil could find oysters but only oysters that were too small for harvest. Like many other folks in this area, Phil abandoned this honest and traditional line of work.

In 2010, Phil was fishing with his grandson along the Matanzas River and spotted several individuals who seemed severely out of place. Because Phil decided to see what they were up to, we are one step closer toward figuring out what happened to the oyster reefs of Matanzas and what may be happening to the oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay.

Before I met Phil on this fateful morning, I was studying how the predators that visit oyster reefs may help maintain reefs and the services they provide (check out that post here). My ivory-tower mission was to see if the benefits of predators on oyster reefs change from North Carolina to Florida. To be honest, I’m not from Florida and I blindly chose the Matanzas reefs to be one of my many study sites. And in order to study lots of sites from NC to Florida, I couldn’t devote much time or concern to any one particular site. In short, I was a Lorax with a Grinch-sized heart that was two sizes too small; I just wanted some data from as many sites as possible.

Hanna Garland (r) discusses with Cristina Martinez (l) how they will set up gill nets as part of their initial oyster reef research in St. Augustine.

But then I met Phil, heard about his loss, and understood that no one was paying attention to it. After looking around this area, my Grinch-sized heart grew a little bigger. Everywhere I looked had a lot of reef structure yet no living oysters. Being a desk-jockey now, I immediately made my first graduate student (Hanna) survey every inch of oyster reef along 15 km of Matanzas shoreline. I think it was about a month’s worth of hard labor during a really hot summer, but she’s tough. Hey, I worked hard on my keyboard!

With these data and lots of experiments, we showed that a large loss of Matanzas oyster reef is due to a voracious predatory snail (crown conch, Melongena corona). This species has been around a long time and it is really important for the health of salt marshes and oyster reefs (in next week’s post, Randall shows the crown conch’s role in the salt marsh). But something is out of whack in Matanzas because its numbers seemed to look more like an outbreak. But, why? Well, thanks to many more Hanna surveys and experiments, we are closing in on that answer: a prolonged drought, decreasing inputs of fresh water, and increasing water salinity.

David took an exploratory trip to Apalachicola Bay with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the fall of 2012, where they found these snails.

We need to figure this out soon, because we see the same pattern south of Matanzas at Cape Canaveral. In addition, I saw conchs overwhelming the intertidal reefs of Apalachicola last fall. While these reefs may not be good for harvesting, they are surely tied to the health of the subtidal reefs that have been the backbone of the Apalachicola fishery for a very long time. Even worse, the bay’s subtidal reefs seemed infested with another snail predator, the southern oyster drill (Stramonita haemastoma). Is this all related? After all, according to locals and a squinty-eyed look at Apalachicola oyster landings, it looks like Apalachicola reefs also started to head south in 2005.

To help answer my question, my team began phase 1 of a major monitoring program throughout Apalachicola Bay in January 2013.With funding from Florida SeaGrant, my lab targeted a few oyster reefs and did so in a way that would provide a decent snap shot of oysters throughout the whole bay. With the help of Shawn Hartsfield and his trusty boat, a visit to these sites over a time span of two weeks and hours upon hours of sample processing back at the lab revealed the following:

(1) There is a lot more oyster reef material in the eastern portion of the bay;

(2) There are also a lot more adult oysters toward the east;

(3) Regardless of huge differences in adult oyster density and reef structure, the ratio of dead oysters to live oysters is about the same throughout the whole bay;

(4) Although the abundance of snail predators is not equal throughout the whole bay, it looks like their abundance may track the abundance of adult oysters.

These data do not show a smoking gun, because many different things or a combination of things could explain these patterns. To figure out whether the outbreak of  multiple snail predators is the last straw on the camel’s back for Apalachicola and other north Florida estuaries, we are using the same experimental techniques that Hanna used in Matanazas River. Well, like any repeat of an experiment, we had to add a twist. Thank goodness Stephanie knows how to weld!

Luckily, I have a great crew that is daily working more hours than a day should contain. As I type, they are installing instrumentation and experiments that will address my question. If you see Hanna and Stephanie out on the bay, please give them a smile and a pat on the back.

More later,


Click here to see graphs illustrating the increase in salinity in the Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). The NERR System allows you to review data from sensors at any of their reserves, including Matanzas and Apalachicola.

Music in the piece by Philippe Mangold.

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


Tile 2.0- Perfecting the Oyster Spat Tile Experiment

As we’ve been getting this post ready, David’s Apalach crew (Hanna, Stephanie, and Shawn) has begun deploying the experiment featured in the video above in Apalachicola Bay.  After years of perfecting it, the tile experiment has become a key tool in Randall and David’s oyster research.  As you can see, there were some headaches along the way.
If you’d like to know more about spat (young oysters), we covered that a few weeks ago in this video.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

An “open” cage, with full predator access.

One of the primary goals of several projects in our labs involves figuring out where oysters grow and survive the best, and if they don’t survive, why not? Sounds pretty basic, and it is, but by doing this across lots of sites/environments, we can start to detect general patterns and identify important factors for oyster growth and survival that maybe we didn’t appreciate before. Our method of choice for this task is to glue the oysters to standardized tiles, place some in cages to protect them from predators, leave the rest to fend for themselves, and then put them in the field and see what happens over time.

In doing this lots and lots of times, we’ve learned who in the lab has a special knack for placing small drops of marine glue – Zspar (which you can see in the video) – on tiles, and who is better at adding the oysters so that the 2 valves of their shells don’t get glued shut. These are the sorts of crazy job skills that don’t go on a standard resume!

Any of you who have been following the blog for a while may remember the craziness of the our first NSF tile experiment (Tile 1.0) in the fall of 2010, which involved collecting lots of juvenile oysters (“spat”) that had recently settled in the field, bringing them back to the lab, and using a dremel to carefully separate that from the shell they settled on. (If you don’t remember and want to check it out, go here.)


Two of our oyster “families” in the water tables at Whitney Marine Lab

Since the Tile 1.0 experience, we’ve developed more elegant (and much simpler!) methods: we contract with an amazing aquaculturist at a FL hatchery to collect adult oysters from the field, provide just the right ambiance to make them spawn (release eggs and sperm), and then raise the oyster larvae to a perfect size for attaching to our tiles. This year, we added another twist on this theme (Tile 2.0) by collecting adult oysters from different areas in FL, GA, SC, and NC, and then spawning and raising them separately in the same hatchery under identical conditions. We refer to these different groups of oysters as “families”, because all of the spat from a given location are related to one another, but not very closely related to the oysters from a different location (who had different parents).


Evan and Tanya admiring our work after we deployed the first reef in St. Augustine.

By putting out tiles from each family at sites across this same geographic range (FL to NC), we can tell if some sites or regions are inherently better than others for oysters (for instance, as I’m currently learning first-hand, there’s a reason that everyone wants to spend the winter in FL!), or if some families are naturally better than others (think Family Feud with oysters), or if the oysters that came from a particular site do best at that site, but not in other places (like the ‘home field advantage’ that recently helped Maryland beat Duke in basketball). Whew – that was pretty mixed bag of metaphors! But you get the idea.

We’re still processing and analyzing the data from Tile 2.0, but it looks like which site is the best depends on what you’re measuring – the best place for survival is not always the best place for growth. And the different oyster families do look and “behave” differently – some grow quickly and some grow slowly, and some survive predators better than others.

Spat bred from adult oysters from Sapelo Island in Georgia (left) and ACE Basin in South Carolina (right).

Surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a home field advantage, at least from our initial analyses. And as Meagan pointed out, we’ve learned from other similar experiments for the National Park Service that it’s not just other oysters or predators that these guys have to worry about – it’s barnacles too! But there are still some ‘sweet spots’ out there for oysters, and once we’ve analyzed all of our data, we’ll have a much better sense for where those are.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.
Music by Barnacled and Pitx.

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


Mud crabs (like the one pictured here), oyster drills, and crown conchs are the primary consumers of oysters on the reef.

How Do Predators Use Fear to Benefit Oysters?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the concept of the ecology of fear on oyster reefs. But, as David asks in the video, “does it matter?” Exactly how much does fear affect oyster filtration, or their ability to support commercially and ecologically important species? And how does fear affect the benefits we receive from ecosystems such as salt marshes and seagrass beds? Coming up, we see how David and Randall took these big questions and broke them down into a series of experiments and investigations geared at creating a clearer picture of fear in the intertidal zone.
Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150A few weeks ago, we had a bayside conversation about the important link between nutrients and oysters. But there is something else that may dictate whether a reef thrives: predators.

Academically, the importance of predators dates back to the 1960s. Some smart people proposed that the world is green because we have lots of big animals, which eat all of the smaller animals that would otherwise consume all the plants…hence the green world.

busycon eating moon snail

Busycon spiratum eating an Atlantic Moon snail on Bay Mouth Bar. These seagrass beds off of Alligator Point are home to the greatest diversity of predatory snails in the world. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dr. Robert Paine investigated the effect of the horse conch, the most dominant predator among the snails, on the habitat. David and his crew have similarly used the dynamic invertebrate population to test their theories on the ecology of fear. (click the photo for more on Bay Mouth Bar).

Now, that’s a pretty simple yet powerful concept.  Since then, lots of studies have tested the importance of predators and how they keep our world spinning. For example, Bob Paine relentlessly braved the icy waters of the NW Pacific for a decade in order to chunk ravenous sea stars from one rocky cliff, but not the other. After several years, the cliff with sea stars still had a tremendous diversity of sea creatures (algae, anemones etc.) and the cliff without predatory sea stars did not. The absence of sea stars allowed pushy, bullying mussels to outcompete all other animals for space and this gave the rocky cliff a uniform and boring mussel complexion.

The same concept has been tested on land. Ripple and Beschetta showed us why the national parks out west no longer have the really important and woody trees (aspen, willow, and cottonwood) that they historically had. By suppressing wolves for the last 50 years, we allowed elk numbers to explode and the elk have overrun the really important woody species.

But predators don’t just eat.  Enter my vivid memory of trying out for the Nash Central 8th grade football team in rural North Carolina. Contrary to my father in-law’s belief (who is a hall of fame football coach in Georgia), I wanted to play football instead of soccer.  But when it came time for try-outs, fear prevented me from pursuing this line of work.  To practice breaking tackles, each player had to lie on the ground and the rest of the team formed a circle around this player.  Unbeknownst to the guy on the ground, the coach secretly selected three players to tackle the football player at the sound of the whistle.  For twenty minutes, I watched physically un-developed friend after late-blooming friend get crushed by other guys who were definitely not late bloomers. The sights and sounds of this drill kept me nauseous until it was my turn. When my turn came, I couldn’t deal with the fear, didn’t perform well, and consequently became a soccer player.

My point is that fear is very powerful. Of course, I knew the charging football players were not going to eat me. But if I was paralyzed with fear from football, then imagine what it’s like for something that has to worry about being eaten. Going to back “the world is green” story: what if we overlay the concept of fear on that? How does the story change?

Well, the next generation of predator studies has examined how the fear of predators can be just as important as the appetite of predators. In addition, because predators can only eat only one animal at a time but can simultaneously frighten many more, fear can create powerful “remote-control effects”. In Australia, the fear of tiger sharks causes dugongs to avoid certain depths in a bay. As a result, only a small portion of the seagrass beds get grazed down by dugongs, possibly being one of the main reasons why areas like Shark Bay still have huge and lush seagrass meadows.

Mud crabs (like the one pictured here), oyster drills, and crown conchs are the primary consumers of oysters on the reef.

For the next few weeks, we will look at some work that my friends and I have conducted for the past three years on how predators and the fear of predators influence oyster reefs and the services that they provide us throughtout the southeast. Although we have the same predators and things that like to eat oysters from North Carolina to Florida, we suspect that differences in the environment will cause the effect of predators to play out differently.

In parting, I just want to say that this predator stuff is really interesting and I think it’s very important for oyster reefs. But of course, when you are dealing with an ecosystem that may be on the verge of collapse like Apalachicola Bay, the distinction between the appetite and fear of predators may not matter that much. But, we will soon see because we are now investigating this important system too.

We’ll be following the Apalach study as well. Here, Stephanie Buhler, who we had previously seen diving in Apalachicola Bay, welds a cage to house an upcoming experiment in that research. It’s a variation of the tile experiments that became such a staple of the NSF oyster study. In a few days, we break down the tile experiment, and David’s collaborator, Dr. Randall Hughes, talks about what the results are telling them so far.

Music in the video by Revolution Void.

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

Barnacles overtaking the experimental oysters.

Notes from the Field: Overwhelmed Oysters

Meagan Murdock is a lab technician in the Hughes and Kimbro Labs, operating out of the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory. The experiment she describes in the following post is a central staple in the research conducted by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro into oyster reef ecology. They seek to measure factors affecting the health of an oyster at a given location by monitoring the growth of young oysters (spat) in a controlled unit- the spat tile. We’ll be further exploring the use of spat tiles in their NSF funded oystern study in the next couple of weeks. David Kimbro is also gearing up to deploy a tile experiment in Apalachicola Bay, with the goal of measuring conditions there (see photo below).
Meagan Murdock FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Beautiful reef backing up to red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) in Mosquito Lagoon, FL. Notice our experiment on the reef!

Mosquito Lagoon of Canaveral National Seashore is in the northern section of possibly the most diverse estuary in North America, the Indian River Lagoon. But don’t let the name “Mosquito” Lagoon scare you off! This lagoon is an expanse of mangrove islands, oyster beds, and home to charismatic animals like manatees and dolphins (maybe a few mosquitoes, but where in Florida can you not find mosquitoes??).  Eight months ago, we set up a rendition of the “Tile Experiment” at three National Park Service units in hopes of elucidating factors contributing to oyster spat (spat=newly settled oyster) survival and growth. Last week we ventured out to Mosquito Lagoon to check on our baby oysters and this is what I found. The tiles were covered in BARNACLES!

Tile 75 pictured after being deployed for 2 months and 8 months.

I felt bad for the little oysters. Not only are these spat expected to survive through adverse environmental conditions and hope they do not become some crab or fish’s dinner, but they also are competing for space and resources with other filter feeders. Geez it must be tough being an oyster! But-yeehaw!-the oysters are persevering and I got to enjoy the nice weather of Central Florida.

Barnacles overtaking the experimental oysters.

As Meagan continues to monitor the growth of her Canaveral oysters, David is having Stephanie Buhler and Hanna Garland deploy some test tiles in the subtidal (always submerged) oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay.  The tiles will be protected by a steel cage which will allow access to researchers while protecting the experiment from an oysterman’s tongs.  Different prototypes of tiles and cages were deployed last week with the full experiment to begin in the coming weeks:

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

Experimental spat tiles, open, closed, and partially open.

Fear and the Choices Oysters Make

Last week, Dr. David Kimbro broke nutrients and oysters down for us.  But what if oysters are too scared to eat the nutrient fed plankton they need to survive?  David and Randall take us another step closer to understanding the Ecology of Fear, examining oysters’ choices and how their behavior affects the important habitat they create.  Stay tuned over the following weeks as they unravel the relationships between predators and prey on oyster reefs and their neighboring coastal ecosystems.  We’ll also continue to follow David’s crew in Apalachicola, Hanna and Stephanie, as they research the oyster fishery crisis.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150I recently moved and was faced with the dilemma of finding a place to live. This can be a touch decision, especially when you’re in a new city or town. Which neighborhood has the best schools? The best coffee shop? Friendly neighbors? Low crime? My solution was to find something short-term while I scope the place out some more, and then I can decide on something more permanent. (As anyone who has me in their address book knows, “permanent” is a very relative term – I have changed residences a lot over the last 15-20 years!) But imagine you had just one shot – one, for your whole life – to decide where to settle down. Talk about a tough decision! That’s what oysters have to do, because once they settle down and glue themselves to their location of choice, they don’t have the opportunity to move around any more. So how do they decide?

This oyster shell, harvested from an intertidal St. George Island reef, had been settled by multiple young oysters called spat. Spat grow into mature oysters with a hard shell, fused with the oyster on which they originally landed. Clumps of attached oysters form a crucial coastal habitat.

It turns out that oyster larvae (baby oysters swimming in the water) can use a number of “cues” to help them in the house-hunting process. First of all, they can detect calcium carbonate, the material that makes up oyster shells (and other things) – if there’s lots of calcium carbonate in an area, that could be a good sign that it’s an oyster reef. (Or it could be a sign that people have put a lot of cement blocks in the water in the hopes that oysters will settle and create a reef – that’s how a lot of oyster restoration projects are started.) Some recent research even shows that oysters can detect the sounds of an oyster reef, and then swim in that direction! Maybe these guys are smarter than we think…

Regardless of how oysters decide, there are times when we are also faced with the question of what makes good oyster habitat, or deciding which area is better than another. As scientists, we turn to experiments. One type of experiment that we have perfected over the years involves getting juvenile oysters- (either from the field, which can be pretty difficult -as you can see from the first round of our tile experiment, or from a hatchery), and gluing them to portable sections of “reef” (ceramic tiles weighed down by bricks). LOTS of ceramic tiles and bricks. We’re talking 800+ ceramic tiles and 700+ bricks last summer alone! That’s enough to make a path that is ~2 football fields long. All moved by truck, hand, boat, hand, kayak, and hand to their temporary location on a reef (and then moved back again when the experiment is done). But I digress.

In the second incarnation of the tile experiment, oyster spat were attached to tiles with an epoxy used in the repair of boat hulls. The tiles in the first version- the ones in the video above- were assembled differently. In a video we'll premiere later this month, we'll look at the twists and turns the experiment took.

After attaching the juvenile oysters to the tiles with a lovely substance known as z-spar, we enclose some tiles in cages to protect them from oyster predators, and we leave others with no cage so they are “open” to predators. (There’s also a 3rd group – the “cage control” – that get 1/2 a cage so we can test whether the cage has effects on the oysters other than keeping out the predators.) Then we take our oyster tiles and put them out in the field at different sites that we want to test. By observing the survival and growth of the ones in the cage (where no predators have access), we can get a general sense for whether it’s a good environment or not. Lots of large, live oysters are a sign of a good environment – plenty of food, good salinity (not too salty or too fresh), good temperature, etc. Also, by comparing the survival of the ones in a cage vs. not in a cage, we can get an idea of how many predators are around – lots of live oysters in the cage and none out of the cage is a pretty good sign that oysters are getting eaten. (If oysters in the cage are dead and oysters outside of the cage are missing, it’s a little tougher to figure out exactly what’s causing it, but it’s clearly not a good place for oysters to live!)

Experimental spat tiles at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve- open, closed, and partially open.

Of course, the oysters themselves don’t know whether they are nice and safe inside our cages, or easy pickings for a predator. So if there are lots of predators lurking around the reef, the oysters may try to “hide”. Obviously, hiding for an oyster does not mean packing up and moving elsewhere, but they do have a few tools at their disposal. In the short term, the oysters can choose not to open up their shells and feed (filter water) as often. This strategy has 2 benefits – 1, they are less vulnerable to predators when their shells are closed and 2, they aren’t releasing lots of invisible chemical cues in the water when they’re closed, so it’s harder for the predators to tell they are there. But as any of you who have been sticking to your New Year’s resolution to lose weight will know, there’s only so long that you can go without eating before that strategy loses its appeal! Over the longer term, the oysters can decide to devote more of the energy that they get from eating to create a thicker, stronger, rougher shell, rather than plumping up their tissues.

So, those are the big-time decisions that an oyster faces: where to live, and when to eat. Sounds kind of familiar…

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

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