Category Archives: On the Reef

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

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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.

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Predator Diversity Loss and Bay Mouth Bar: The Next Stage

David and Randall’s NSF funded oyster study looks to understand how predators control oyster eating animals such as mud crabs and crown conchs. But this dynamic isn’t exclusive to oyster reefs. They are also investigating how predators might help maintain salt marshes and seagrass beds. In their seagrass bed studies, they have focused on a system loaded with predators: Bay Mouth Bar.
Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Tanya RogersThe very first time I drove from Tallahassee to the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab I saw a black bear crossing the Crawfordville highway. No joke. This was in June of 2010, and I had just driven 5 days and 2800 miles from San Francisco to the Florida panhandle to take up my new job on the Gulf Coast. I had just finished college in Washington state, and I had never before been to the Southeast. What sort of wild place had I ended up in?

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150IGOR chip- biodiversity 150A very wild and unique one it turns out, and one I’ve come to know better working for the past few years as a research technician for Dr. David Kimbro in the fascinating coastal habitats of this region. Primarily I’ve been traipsing around oysters reefs across the state for the collaborative biogeographic oyster study (now drawing to a close), but for the past year or so I’ve also been managing our side project in the Bay Mouth Bar system, a sandbar and seagrass bed near the FSU Marine Lab. Bay Mouth Bar is a naturalist’s playground filled with surprises and an astonishing diversity of marine creatures that never ceases to amaze me. It is also a unique study system with an intriguing history out of which we can begin asking many interesting questions. This coming fall I’m excited to be starting as Dr. Kimbro’s Ph.D. student at Northeastern University, and for part of my dissertation I’ve decided to conduct some new experimental research this spring and summer out on Bay Mouth Bar.

Horse conch consuming a banded tulip snail on Bay Mouth Bar.

A horse conch in Tanya’s experiment consuming a banded tulip snail.

Bay Mouth Bar is known for its especially diverse assemblage of large predatory snails, which the ecologist Robert T. Paine conducted a study of in the late 1950’s. In 2010, we began surveying the snail community on the bar, interested in what changes might have occurred in the 50 years since Paine’s time, a period during which very little research had been done in this system. I began synthesizing some of the data we’ve gathered, as well as talking to some of the long-term residents of the area. So what has changed on Bay Mouth Bar since the 1950’s? A number of things in fact:

  • Of the 6 most common predatory snail species, 2 are no longer present: the true tulip and the murex snail.
  • The number of specialist snails (like the murex, which only eats clams) has declined relative to the number of generalist snails (those that eat a variety of prey, like the banded tulip).
  • There has been a drastic reduction in the overall area of the bar and changes in the coverage seagrass, specifically the loss of large meadows turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum).
  • Surface dwelling bivalves (e.g. scallops, cockles), once enormously abundant, are now very rare.
True Tulip and murex Snails (no longer found at Bay Mouth Bar)

The two main snail species no longer found at Bay Mouth Bar, true tulip (The larger snail on the left, eating a banded tulip) and murex (right). The true tulip was, along with the horse conch, a top predator of the ecosystem, while the murex is a specialist snail, eating only clams.

Why is this interesting? Worldwide, we know that species diversity is declining as a result of human activities, that specialists are being increasingly replaced by generalists, and that consumer and predator species often face a disproportionate risk of local extinction. So what are the consequences of realistic losses and changes to biodiversity? Is having a diversity of predators beneficial (e.g. both horse conchs and true tulips) to an ecosystem as a whole? Do some species matter more than others? And how do the effects of predators depend on the type of habitat they’re in, given that habitats (like seagrasses) are also changing in response to the environmental changes? These are some of the questions I’m hoping to address in Bay Mouth Bar system, in which we have documented historical changes in predator diversity.

Tethered community in Tanya's Bay Mouth Bar experiment

One of communities in Tanya’s experiment. At the center are top predators reflecting either the current assemblage (a horse conch alone) or the historic assemblage (the horse conch and true tulip).  The predators are tethered to posts and given enough line to reach the lower level predatory snails (murex, lightning whelks, banded tulips, and Busycon spiratum) on the outside.  Those snails have enough line to get out of the large predator’s reach and forage for food.

This past week, I set up an experiment featuring a menagerie of snails tethered in different assemblages across Bay Mouth Bar. Some assemblages mimic the current assemblage, whereas others mimic the assemblage found on the bar during Paine’s time. These historical assemblages include the snail species no longer found there, which I collected from other locations where they are still abundant. Some assemblages have top predators (e.g. horse conchs) whereas others do not. Some are in turtle grass, others are in shoal grass. We’ll see how, over the course of the summer, these different assemblages affect the prey community (clams, mussels, small snails) and other elements of seagrass ecosystem functioning.

Music in the piece by Donnie Drost.  Theme by Lydell Rawls.

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 dosits.org, 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.

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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.