Category Archives: On the Reef

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

L to R: Georgia Ackerman, Eddie Lueken, Rick Zelznak, Chris Robertson, and Jennifer Portman.

Paddling for Oysters

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Apalachicola River water line

If you’re an oyster lover, this photo might concern you.  This was taken yesterday on a long paddle along the Apalachicola River.  Participants in this year’s Rivertrek fundraiser (click here for the website) were taking an eighteen mile warm up paddle in preparation for the five day adventure this October.  Then, we’ll be tackling the entirety of the River.   I snapped this photo about an hour after our lunch break, during the long part of our trip where I learned why stretching before paddling is so important.

For us, on this blog, it’s a matter of salinity.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average salinity of the ocean is 35 parts per thousand (ppt).  That’s 35 grams of salt dissolved in every thousand grams of water.  Oysters, like those in the famous Apalachicola Bay, can survive within a wide range of 5 ppt to 40 ppt.  Yet they thrive predominantly in fresher water.  Why is that?  It has to do with the organisms that affect the health of an oyster.  Oyster drills and stone crabs, both oyster consumers, cannot survive in less than 15 ppt salinity.  The oyster disease Dermo (Perkinsus marinus) thrives in 21-25 ppt.  That’s why successful reefs are typically found where a fresh water source meets the ocean, like where the Apalachicola River flows into Apalachicola Bay.  It’s also why that photo can be of concern: it marks the decrease in fresh water flowing along the Apalachicola and into the Bay (the line marks where water flow had been).  That decrease in flow has been a result of drought, but it serves as a reminder of the greater threat facing the River basin: the management of water north of the Woodruff Dam, and the amount let through to the river..

Houseboat on the Apalach

Houseboats and fishing/ hunting shacks were scattered along the river.  The sign on this one identified it as “The Redneck Yacht.”

This year will be the fourth year that the Rivertrek fundraiser will benefit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, who fight to keep water flowing at levels that benefit the dependent industries in the Bay and one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States.  This year, In the Grass, On the Reef will be along to provide daily snapshots of the journey.  From October 10 to October 14, we’ll have images of the trip and stories of each day’s trek.  Yesterday’s tuneup allowed me to experiment with how I wanted to shoot from a kayak using our waterproof cameras.  The image looks best when I get closer; the trick is not hitting the subject of my shot, whether it’s a cypress tree or another kayaker.  I also saw how best I could arrange my gear so that I could get my work done while paddling comfortably.  And I also got to know some of my fellow Trekkers.

Georgia cuts her finger on a fishing hookI had already known Georgia Ackerman and Rick Zelznak, owners of the Wilderness Way.  I will disclose that The Wilderness Way has been a WFSU underwriter, and had provided kayaks to the In the Grass, On the Reef project early on (Riverkeeper has also underwritten WFSU).  They provided us our kayaks yesterday as well, and will provide some for the Rivertrek paddle (including mine).  Georgia, ever passionate about our water ways, picked up trash along the river and ended up taking a fish hook to her finger.  Luckily, we were paddling with an ER nurse.

Eddie Lueken will be one of our crucial support crew during the trek, driving back and forth to bring us supplies and food.  One night, she’ll be making us machaca, a tasty sounding Mexican beef dish (with an accompanying bean dish for the vegetarian paddlers).  An Emergency Room nurse with a knack for story telling, she had us in stitches (no pun intended) with some of her stories.

Paddling together in a tandem kayak were Jennifer Portman and Chris Robertson.  Jennifer is the other media member taking part in the Trek; she writes for the Tallahassee Democrat.  Chris will be one of the fundraisers- everyone on the trip except Jennifer and I have to get pledges.  He came with several detailed laminated maps of the river.  They were formidable in their tandem, often well ahead of us and scouting for the entrance to Owl Creek, where we ended our trip.  They, Eddie, Georgia, and Rick were great people to paddle with.  The River and its struggles are always a big story in our area, and I’m happy to document a part of that story.  The opportunity to get footage along all the different parts of the River is priceless.  The River basin has to be considered the ecological epicenter of this area.

L to R: Georgia Ackerman, Eddie Lueken, Rick Zelznak, Chris Robertson, and Jennifer Portman.

Halfway through yesterday’s paddle, we started smelling salt.  The River provides for the Bay, but the Bay gives a little to the River, too.  Many of the fish that make use of the oyster reefs and seagrass beds in Apalachicola Bay come up the river.  Rick even saw a blue crab swimming at one point, over twenty miles up the River.  Next week’s video explores the real value of the oyster reef, and how its influence can be felt beyond our coasts.  If you haven’t seen the first in our second series of videos, it sets up the commercial importance of the intertidal ecosystems such as those that found in and around Apalachicola Bay.  You can watch it here.

Below is a slideshow of our trip, from the River Styx to Owl Creek:

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

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SciGirls Tallahassee (and Rebecca) Cope with Marsh Mud

Episode 3: Studying Nature Involves Visiting and Standing in Nature

In a couple of weeks we’ll dive right in and look at oyster reefs and their surprising value. In the weeks following, we’ll do the same with salt marshes, seagrass beds, and with the unique diversity of Bay Mouth Bar.  Right now, we hope you enjoy watching the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls get their footing in the intertidal zone.
Rebecca Wilkerson WFSU-TV

SciGirls' mudy feetThe first question I was asked when I became involved in the In the Grass, On the Reef project was if I was afraid to go out in the field and get a little dirty. “Of course not!” was my response. I have always been a fan of the outdoors and love scalloping and kayaking, so of course I would love this. I guess I was expecting to be in the water more than anything. After all, we couldn’t really be going out into anything too messy, right?

The first few shoots I went on were great and went about how I expected they would. But after a few weeks we went to Wakulla Beach, where I discovered exactly why I was asked that particular question when I was hired. Not fully prepared for my experience that day, I had quite a time trying to walk through the mud without getting sucked in knee-deep and losing my shoes, causing others to slow down and get stuck as well while they were trying to help me out. After clawing my way out and finally escaping the mud, I walked on an oyster reef for the first time. While the mud was not nearly as bad at this point, I am a terribly clumsy person. Luckily, I was able to keep my footing and avoid falling on top of oyster shells.

Although it was exhausting, I still enjoyed my Wakulla Beach experience, as I’ve come to call it. It was definitely a learning experience for me and I loved being able to see the sunset over the reefs. I have yet to master the “quick, light steps” needed to defeat the mud, but I definitely have an appreciation for what our scientists, and many others, go through to set up experiments and collect their data. I also love that getting out in the water (and mud) are a part of my job, not to mention that we get to see some really cool things. Every shoot is a new experience and I notice more about the environment and the animals each time I go out.

And Also, the Animal Experience

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Animals with claws suited to tearing through oyster shell can, unsurprisingly, injure you.

One thing we didn’t mention in the video above or in Rebecca’s post are the animals at the sites, which you definitely have to keep an eye out for.  Members of the Hughes and Kimbro labs have been pinched by blue crabs and have encountered the occasional snake in the marsh.  There are small sharks, the possibility of alligators, and the sting rays that we see and shuffle our feet to avoid stepping on and startling.  You keep an eye out for those knowing that they’re a potential danger, though not a pressing threat.  During last week’s shoots in Saint Augustine, however, events in the news had us paying serious attention to the smallest animals that are also the ones that attack us most relentlessly.  Our country is in the midst of perhaps its worst ever outbreak of West Nile virus.  Mosquitos are a fact of the coast.  During the day, there is usually enough of a breeze to keep them off you; but since the work we follow is tidally based, activities can occur before sunrise or after sunset, when mosquitos are at their worst.  Alligators may look scarier, but it pays to know what the most pressing threat is.

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

Music in the video by grapes.  In the Grass, On the Reef theme music by Lydell Rawls.

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

This attractive gastropod, seen int he video above, is a busycon snail wrapped around an atlantic moon snail that it just happens to be eating.  Nature videos have have a cast of human, animal, and plant characters.

Video: Where the Land Meets the Sea

Episode 1: Where the Land Meets the Sea

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

This time around, everything is both familiar yet new.

On the new tiles, spat are glued on with a mixture used to repair boat hulls.

I recently went to Saint Augustine to document the second version of Dr. David Kimbro and Dr. Randall Hughes’ tile experiment.  The basic concept is this: attach a certain amount of oyster spat (larval oysters- basically little blobs in the process of growing and building shells) to tiles, leave them on or by oyster reefs and see how they grow, or if they are eaten.  I’ll let Randall and David explain the intricacies of the experiment when we post those videos in January.  Or, you could watch our coverage of that first experiment, conducted in the fall of 2010.  Watching that video and then watching our new videos on the experiment, you’ll notice that both the approach to the experiment and to the video coverage have evolved.  After the Kimbro lab spent so many long days scrambling to collect spat, The 2010 experiment didn’t succeed like they’d hoped.  Likewise, our communication of their research, and the importance of the ecology of intertidal ecosystems, didn’t quite succeed like I had hoped.   I like watching the old videos; I just don’t think they did what we wanted them to.  But you learn, and hopefully, you improve.

This time around, I was struck by how orderly everything was at the Whitney Lab as the oyster crew prepared their tiles.  No more scrambling out at low tide to collect oysters; they had hired someone to breed spat from oysters spanning the Eastern seaboard.  The current tile design and construction had been tested, and would withstand the elements.  Randall and David had learned lessons, and were efficiently implementing their new plan.  But what had I learned?

This attractive gastropod, seen in the video above, is a busycon snail wrapped around an atlantic moon snail that it just happens to be eating. Nature videos have a cast of human, animal, and plant characters.

Early last year, WFSU had a moment equivalent to that of the Hug-Bro labs’ realization that the glue on their initial tiles couldn’t withstand the waves at their sites.  The National Science Foundation had rejected our grant application to fund this project.  After a few months of following their studies and a couple dozen videos, a panel of reviewers let us know everything they thought we did wrong.  That was fun.

When Randall, David, Kim Kelling-Engstrom (WFSU’s Educational Services Director) and I decided to reapply for the grant, we needed a new narrative for what it was that we wanted to communicate.  What was our story?  If you watch our old videos, we’re very narrowly focused on experiments and field work.  There’s a lack of perspective on the impact of the ecosystems on our area, a lack of local color from the excellent locations we visit, and I kind of feel like we could have better captured what a day on a salt marsh or oyster reef was like.  The new application reflected more of the world around the reefs and marshes, and the people who need them.  If you’ve watched the video above, you may have figured that this time, our application was successful.

The red snapper being held by Ike Thomas, owner of My Way Seafood, was caught in 150 feet of water. Before reaching market size, younger snapper are one of many fish species that forage on oyster reefs.

I’m finding the new videos are more fun to put together.  We’re exploring the area more, talking to more people, and it’s easier to spot the animals we care about and get footage of them.  And with funding we have some extra staff helping on the blog and on shoots (like new associate producer Rebecca Wilkerson).  The upcoming videos are like the new tiles sitting in their cages off of Saint Augustine oyster reefs: they are the product of some hard won knowledge.  That experiment ends soon and they’ll see if they get the data they needed to meet their larger goals.  We, on the other hand, are just getting started, and we hope that you’ll keep joining us as we explore that area where the land meets the sea.

Over the next couple of weeks, we see the WFSU SciGirls visit the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab to learn about what Randall does: in the marsh, at the lab, and in front of the camera.  It gets a little messy.  In September, we go in the field with Randall and David onto oyster reefs and into seagrass beds and salt marshes.

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

Music in the piece was by Kokenovem and airtone.
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The Biology / Art Intersection

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Blue crab – colored pencil

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Art is something I’ve always loved almost as much as biology. If I hadn’t been a biology major in college, I probably would have been an art major, and it is the fusion of the two that I like in particular: the realistic artwork of plants, animals, other living creatures, and their environments. There is something I especially enjoy about drawing plants and animals, because to draw them accurately, you have to look at them with a closeness and a consideration beyond the everyday. You notice the forms and structures and beautifully intricate details you would have never seen otherwise. I find that you see the organism in a new light, with a new appreciation, understanding, and respect.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I discovered the field of scientific illustration – that this  marriage between biology and art was in fact an entire line of work. Artwork of biological organisms is used for a variety of purposes, including field guides, identification keys, scientific papers, descriptions of new species, textbooks, educational displays, brochures, and posters. A number of people work as full or part time scientific illustrators, often for museums or publishers, or as free lancers. Beyond the fine arts, it appears there’s a market for the exact types of drawings I’ve always loved to create.

Sand dollar and sea urchin – pen and ink

You may wonder why scientific illustrations are still important today given the ubiquity of photography. It is mainly because there are limitations to what photographs can depict clearly. With illustrations, important details can be captured and highlighted, the background and unimportant details omitted, photographic artifacts eliminated (like obscuring highlights and shadows), and the organism best positioned to convey its important features in a way that is easily interpreted. Interactions, behaviors, and assemblages can be depicted that would be difficult or impossible to capture on film. Fossil and other extinct plants and animals can be portrayed as they would look in real life. Illustrations are also very useful for schematics and diagrams, and are very commonly used to depict medical procedures.

Scientific illustration differs from other forms of art in that accuracy is imperative, but aesthetics are also of consideration. Composition is important, as is skillful use of the artistic medium and the portrayal of three-dimensional form, light, shadow, and depth. Great illustrations should look both realistic and visually appealing, capture the right amount of detail, and perform well the interpretive function for which they were created. The medium itself can range widely depending on how the illustration is to be used. Pen and ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and other traditional media are common, and digital artwork is increasingly common today.

The whelk Busycon spiratum – graphite

Last summer I decided to attend the annual conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators held that year in Olympia, Washington. It was a fabulous conference where I met many phenomenal scientific illustrators, all far better artists than me, and all wonderful and friendly people with a common love of both science and art. The talks, workshops, and field trips at the conference, like the interests of the attendees, were a mixture of art and biology, encompassing everything from techniques (like how to draw fish scales accurately) to interesting local natural history (like research on crows’ ability to recognize human faces). I picked up many new techniques and ideas to take back with me and try. Having previously attended college in Washington state, it was also wonderful to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week.

Ultimately, I plan to go into biology rather than illustration as my primary career, but I hope that illustration might be a fulfilling side venture. I hope you enjoy the illustrations of mine I’ve included in this post, which are all of species found in Florida.

For more information on scientific illustration, visit the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators webpage, or Science-Art.com, where you can peruse the work of many of its members. There are also a number of blogs on science and art, such as this one, which has links to several other blogs on its homepage.

Hughes/ Kimbro (Hug-Bro) Labs Poster

Hughes-Kimbro Lab poster and t-shirt design – pen and ink

Green sea turtle – not actually an illustration, this is a sand sculpture I made on a beach (one of my more bizarre artistic hobbies)

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The Combined Benefits of Research and Teaching

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

I recently completed teaching a 2-week course in Field Marine Science at FSUCML. Nine undergraduate students and one graduate teaching assistant lived in housing at the lab for the duration of the course, and we were busy from virtually sun-up to sun-down each weekday with class activities. It was a lot of fun:

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The students of Field Marine Science 2012 inspect what we caught trawling through a local seagrass bed.

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A group of students works to complete our field survey before the sun sets.

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Students hunting for mud crabs for a lab mesocosm experiment.

This year, we focused on oyster reef ecosystems, taking advantage of past and ongoing projects in the Hughes and Kimbro (aka, “Hug-bro”) labs. We conducted a field experiment, field survey, and mesocosm experiment examining sediment accumulation on oyster reefs – and all in just 2 weeks!

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Students quantify sediment accumulation on oyster shells during our field experiment.

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Students process the contents of cages from our field experiment, looking for crabs.

Well, the field experiment and survey were started ahead of time by Hugbro personnel, but the labor-intensive breakdown and sample processing tasks were handled by the class.

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Surveying mud crab abundance on our experimental reefs.

After all that time spent learning about, walking around on, and handling oysters, everyone was ready to eat a few by the end of the second week!

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An underwater camera gave us a great view of the seagrass!

In addition to gaining hands-on research experience, a goal of the class was to become familiar with common coastal habitats in northern FL. So we squeezed in a few trips to seagrass beds and salt marshes as well, enjoying the opportunity to ride on a boat that didn’t require paddles.

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Happily preparing to snorkel in St. Joseph Bay State Park, FL.

We observed lots of sea hares as we snorkeled in St. Joe Bay.

And we were all happy to don snorkels and masks to explore the seagrass instead of gloves and boots for the oysters!

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Results of a study by Feldon and colleagues demonstrating an increase in the quality of hypotheses included in graduate student research proposals when the students had teaching responsibilities.

As I catch up on the research projects that languished a bit while I was teaching, it is reassuring to think about the results of a recent study illustrating that teaching can increase the quality of research. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy and value teaching for its own sake – but the tasks of teaching and research can often seem in competition with one another when time is limited (and when is time not limited?).

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Additional results from the study by Feldon et al. showing better experimental design in research proposals written by graduate students that teach and do research.

Enter the study by Feldon and colleagues in the journal Science, showing that graduate students with teaching responsibilities formed better hypotheses and generated better experimental designs in their own research proposals than graduate students without teaching responsibilities. This benefit did not result from explicit instruction in hypothesis testing or experimental design geared towards the graduate students themselves – rather, the process of teaching scientific concepts to others made them better able to conduct research. So add to the inherent fun and satisfaction of teaching a boost to my research! Time to write a (better?) research proposal…

 

Pea crabs at various stages of development. The ones in the center are young crabs, as they appear in the stages immediately following infection of an oyster. The ones on the right are older, harder-carapaced crabs (most likely males, which may leave their hosts in search of oysters harboring females). The crab on the left is a mature female. The developing, orange-colored gonads are visible through the female’s thin carapace. Since mature females never leave the their host oyster, their carapaces (shells) are very soft and thin. This makes them very… squishy and pea-like.

Pea Crab Infestation!

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biogeographic 150Serendipitous results are surely one of the most rewarding parts of experimental research. This past winter, I spent many weeks processing various frozen components of great cage experiment of last summer, including the several hundred spat tiles placed inside the different cages at all sites along the coast. It was while delicately measuring and shucking these little spat that I made one such unanticipated finding: Our oyster spat, unbeknownst to us, had become infested with pea crabs.

Pea crabs at various stages of development. The ones in the center are young crabs, as they appear in the stages immediately following infection of an oyster. The ones on the right are older, harder-carapaced crabs (most likely males, which may leave their hosts in search of oysters harboring females). The crab on the left is a mature female. The developing, orange-colored gonads are visible through the female’s thin carapace. Since mature females never leave the their host oyster, their carapaces (shells) are very soft and thin. This makes them very… squishy and pea-like.

You might have had the surprise of finding an oyster pea crab (Zaops ostreus) while shucking an oyster yourself. These small crabs live inside oysters and are a type of kleptoparasite, meaning they steal food from their hosts. An oyster gathers food by filtering water over its gills, trapping edible particles on its gills, and carrying those particles to its mouth using cilia (tiny hairs). Pea crabs sit on the gills and pick out some of the food the oyster traps before the oyster can consume it. By scurrying around inside oysters, pea crabs can also damage the gills mechanically. The pea crabs, like most parasites, don’t kill their hosts, but they can certainly affect the oysters’ overall health.

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A gravid (egg-bearing) female pea crab next to the oyster spat in which she was living. The female, like most crabs, carries her eggs until they hatch, and then releases her larvae into the water. The baby crabs, when ready, will locate a new oyster host by smell.

As I was processing the oyster spat from all of our experimental sites (Florida to North Carolina) for survivorship, growth, and condition, I began to notice a surprising number of pea crabs living inside them and started to keep track. What’s interesting was not so much that the oysters had pea crabs, but that the percentage of oysters infected with pea crabs varied geographically. For instance, only about 25% had pea crabs in St. Augustine, Florida, whereas over 70% were infected at Skidaway Island, Georgia. Keep in mind that these spat all came from the same source and the same hatchery, so they all had the same starting condition. What’s more, I found that spat in Georgia which had naturally recruited to the tiles from the surrounding waters (of which there were quite a lot, and for which I also processed condition) rarely had pea crabs. Only about 5% of the recruits had pea crabs at Skidaway Island, Georgia. Why is there this huge difference in infection rate? Do the local oysters know something that the transplants don’t? How do these patterns in pea crab infection relate to other geographic patterns we’re finding? How does pea crab infection affect oyster condition? These and many more questions await to be addressed in further analyses and future experiments.

At high tide, this reef will be covered in turbid water, and large predators like catfish, blue crabs, and red drum move in to eat smaller animals such as mud crabs.

Sounds of the Oyster Reef

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150Imagine you’re watching a slasher movie starring mud crabs as the protagonists.  A mud crab leaves the party in the muck under the oyster reef, where the other crabs are chomping down juvenile oysters.  As he pokes his head out from between a couple of shells, you hear a drumming sound and you shout at the screen “Don’t go out there!”

It’s fun to anthropomorphize some of the freaky looking residents of an oyster reef.  But these are the realities of living within the ecology of fear.  Predator cues have a definitive impact on how the smaller, intermediate consumers such as mud crabs behave.  That’s what David Kimbro, Randall Hughes & co. are studying in Alligator Harbor and at their sites across the southeast.  Large predators send certain cues to their prey- perhaps a certain way they move in the water, perhaps.  When the prey species sense that the predators are near, they cease activity- including the eating of juvenile oysters.  That is how large predators help maintain a healthy oyster reef- they make intermediate consumers (mud crabs) eat less of the basal species (oysters, the foundation of the oyster reef habitat). Continue reading

Crabs and Oysters: Oyster Collaborator Featured on Public Television

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A cage filled with oysters, spat tiles, and clams. Different sets of cages had different combinations of mud crabs and their predators (toadfish, blue crabs, stone crabs, and catfish).

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One of David and Randall’s oyster collaborators, Dr. Jeb Byers, was recently featured in a lengthy segment on Georgia Public television’s Georgia Outdoors.  The episode is about crabs in general,  but at 8:28 in they take a look at the large cage experiment that Randall, David, and Jeb, along with Dr. Jon Grabowski and Dr. Mike Piehler at UNC, conducted last summer.  You see a little more of the cages being filled than you do in Testing the Ecology of Fear, which covers the oyster study in Florida to that point and which was into the editing process as they set up the experiment.  The video is not available for embedding, so click on the link below to watch.

Click here to watch Georgia Outdoors: Fiddling with Crabs.

In the Grass, On the Reef, A World Away

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biogeographic 150IGOR chip- habitat 150David and I are in Sydney, Australia, on visiting research appointments with the University of Technology Sydney. We arrived the first of the year, and after recovering from jet lag and getting our bearings, we embarked this week on setting up a couple of new experiments.  We have great local “guides” – Dr. Peter Macreadie (UTS), Dr. Paul York (UTS), Dr. Paul Gribben (UTS), and Dr. Melanie Bishop (Macquarie University) – to introduce us to the field systems and collaborate with us on these projects.

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Our seagrass and razor clam experiment is set up at Point Wolstoncroft in Lake Macquarie (north of Sydney).

Continue reading

Photo feature: Oyster Love

From the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150What’s not to love about oysters? They clean the water, they’re delicious, and they have surprising economic value. Members of the Kimbro Lab found this unique oyster, which itself seems very loving, on one of their study sites. “Now I’ve seen a lot of weird-shaped oysters,” says lab tech Tanya Rogers,” but never one quite this perfect. I took it on a photoshoot this evening for some nice background and lighting.”