Category Archives: Wildlife in North Florida- Critters Big and Small

Behind the Scenes at the Saint Marks Whooping Crane Pen

As we await might be the last whooping crane class to winter in the St. Marks Refuge, we look back at a visit we took to the whooping crane site with Brooke Pennypacker, a dedicated crane handler with Operation Migration. We also look at the future of ultralight guided whooping crane migration, which Operation Migration is defending as they meet with partner organizations.
UPDATE – 1/25/16

This year’s ultralight guided whooping migration will be the last.  Operation Migration will remain involved in the efforts to create a self-sustaining whooping crane population.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service has explained the rationale behind the decision (you can read more on that below), while Operation Migration’s Brooke Pennypacker has written this touching post-decision entry to the OM field blog.  From our interview with Brooke and in following Operation Migration over the last few years, I can see how invested he and the other OM staff are when it comes to  whooping cranes.  They have sacrificed a lot to raise, train and guide flock after flock of cranes, and I can’t imagine that they won’t continue to do so.

This year’s St. Marks flyover, likely to be this week, will be the last.  A number of cranes have continued to migrate back to the Refuge after their initial migration, and under the new management regime, the hope is that they will be the ones to guide captive-raised chicks south for the first time.  It will be years before the new practices can be judged to be successful, and even then, as in the case of ultralight guided migration, the results may not conclusively predict the long term success of the population.  All I can with certainty at this point is that I know there will be dedicated people working their hardest to make it work.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

When I met Brooke Pennypacker, he brought with him an example of the many challenges faced by a whooping crane handler.  The staff at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge visitor center told us that Brooke was busy handling an issue in the crane pen, and that he’d be late.  About 30 minutes later, he pulled up in an Operation Migration pickup truck.  In the bed was a bundle of plastic fencing and white cloth from which an alligator tail protruded.  Brooke had recently noticed the cranes move from their usual roosting spot, next to an oyster bar, to a spot on the other end of the pen.  They were acting spooked. After spotting the young gator, he borrowed a seine net from Jack Rudloe at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, caught it, and wrapped it in his whooping crane feeding costume.  All in a day’s job. Continue reading

giant swallowtail caterpillar

Butterfly Watching and Research in the Red Hills

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Monarchs are cool, but they’re the only butterflies we see in this area that aren’t 100% local.  We trek through a couple of different habitat types and get a hint of the diversity of butterflies we have here in the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia.  Scroll down for a complete list of species we saw in the video.  Music for the piece comes from Haiqiong Deng‘s performance on Local Routes.  She performed two songs; the other song aired in the same episode as this segment.  If you missed it, you can watch it on the Local Routes page.

Examining some torn up leaves in my garden one night, I started down a path that led me to become somewhat of a butterfly enthusiast.  My wife and I had recommitted ourselves to making full use of the space we had to grow veggies, and part of that was some good old-fashioned pest squashing.  Of course, some bugs are beneficial, so I did my due diligence before pulling the trigger.  In other words, I went on Google.   Continue reading

Crown Conchs, Parenting, and Walks Along the Gulf Coast

We’re pleased to introduce our newest blogger, Jessie Mutz. A graduate student in the Florida State University Department of Biological Science, Jessie will be taking a closer look at some of the many fascinating plants and animals in our area. In the process, she’ll introduce us to FSU students and faculty conducting research across various ecosystems.  She starts in a place familiar to this blog when it comes to FSU research- our very own Forgotten Coast.
Jessie Mutz Graduate Student, FSU Department of Biological Science

With summertime officially and emphatically here in North Florida, many of us are coastward bound. Like long walks on the beach?  As it turns out, you’re not the only one.

Low tide on the Gulf Coast. Photo by Scott Burgess.

Low tide at the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab, St. Teresa, FL. Photo by Scott Burgess.

Meet Dr. Scott Burgess, a marine evolutionary ecologist and one of the newest faculty in FSU’s Department of Biological Science. Although it’s only the start of his first full summer in Tallahassee, Scott has already been hitting the beach – a prime location for researching the reproductive strategies of intertidal invertebrates like the crown conch, Melongena corona. “This area has a lot of species with an unusual life history type, one that is typically less common in other areas,” he says. “So that’s a big interesting thing: Why are there lots of these weird ones here? Why have all of the species chosen this particular life history in this area of the world?” Continue reading

Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

Video: bird watching, nature writing, and possibly the best sunrise spot on the Forgotten Coast. Author Susan Cerulean joins us at Bald Point State Park.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Susan Cerulean and I are watching a bufflehead duck dive for food by an oyster reef.  We’re at Bald Point State Park, and Susan is putting me in tune with nature’s cycles.  “You can’t know when that last one’s left,” she says of the duck, which should soon be departing for the north.  This is the seasonal cycle, warming and cooling that spurs many of the birds we’re seeing to start continental and intercontinental flights. Continue reading

Interning at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab: Hands On

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

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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

Tally SciGirls Learn Fire Ecology at Tall Timbers

Tallahassee SciGirls camp is a collaboration between WFSU and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.  For two weeks ever summer, middle school aged girls take over a dozen field trips exposing them to science in multiple real world settings, from the physics lab at Florida State University to the Seacrest Wolf Preserve.  We joined them for two of their ecology related adventures.  The video below is of their visit to Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.  On Wednesday, September 17 at 7:30 pm ET, their visit to Wakulla Springs airs on WFSU’s Dimensions (look for it here shortly after).

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
P1060966

Kellie Phillips, a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, shows the SciGirls how she tracks northern bobwhite quails using radio telemetry. Bobwhites are a popular game species found in fire dependent longleaf habitat.

There is something about a well burned forest that looks clean.  The longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem is uncluttered, with trees spaced widely enough “to drive a wagon through.”   Many of our EcoAdventures take place in or around this habitat, which covers much of our area.   A lot of our guides on these trips, whether they be land managers, ecotourism professionals, or researchers, love to talk about the habitat and how it thrives with fire.  Dr. Tom Miller looked at a plot of Apalachicola National Forest and told me that it had been burned within 18 months.  Dr. Jean Huffman looked up at longleaf pines in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve and told me how old they were.  For any SciGirls interested in ecology, their visit to Tall Timbers was an opportunity to get to know a diverse and productive ecosystem that is easily accessible to those of us living in or around Tallahassee.  One day they might be the ones looking forward to the next burn and guiding their local PBS producer through the woods. Continue reading

Can crabs hear? (Revisited, with answers!)

P1050260Four years ago, we traveled out into the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor with Dr. David Kimbro.  It was both the start of an ambitious new study and of our In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Last June, we went back to those reefs with Dr. Randall Hughes as she, David, and their colleagues revisited study sites from North Carolina to the Florida Gulf.  In 2010, they sampled the reefs with nets and crab traps, and harvested small sections of reef.  This more recent sampling, which unfolds in the opening scenes of our recent documentary, Oyster Doctors, was conducted with underwater microphones.  Randall explains how sound became a tool in further understanding fear on oyster reefs.

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The research in the following post was conducted while Randall and David worked at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University

A little over a year ago, I wrote about our research project, motivated by a question from WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas, to test whether crabs can hear the “songs” made by their fish predators. At the time, the work had not been published, and so I was not able to share all of the juicy details. But now it has, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so I can finally answer with a resounding YES! Continue reading

Snakes, Eagles, & Gopher Tortoises at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center

Rebecca Wilkerson WFSU-TV

In the coming days, we refocus our attention to the coasts as we gear up for the world premiere of In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors. This is the culmination of almost four years of collaboration with Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro. Together, we have explored the salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds that fuel Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Stay tuned for more information on the premiere event and opportunities to join us on coastal EcoAdventures.
Regena, one of the two American Bald Eagles housed at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.

Regena, one of the two American Bald Eagles housed at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.

For this video we take a step back from the coast and travel inland to visit one of Florida’s environmental education centers. The E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center is named after Dr. E.O. Wilson for his work in conservation, preservation and restoration. Dr. Wilson contributed to the development of several new academic specialties in biology and paved the way for many global conservation efforts. He also coined the term “biophilia”, meaning  “love of all living things.”  His life’s work and achievements set the standard for the development of the center and its various education programs. Continue reading

Video: Turtles, Octopus, & Crabs at the Gulf Specimen Lab

Video: Critters galore at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jack Rudloe feeding Nurse Sharks at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab

Gulf Specimen Marine Lab founder Jack Rudloe feeding nurse sharks.

If there’s one thing we have learned in 3-plus years of doing this project, it’s that everything eats blue crabs.  If you’ve watched our videos over the years, you’ve seen a gull eating one on Saint George Island.  You’ve seen (and heard) a loggerhead turtle crunch into one.  And in the video above, two octopi wrestle for the tasty treat at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, Florida (That turtle shot was taken there as well, a few months back).  Lab founder Jack Rudloe spent some time with us, feeding sharks, hermit crabs, and various fish species.  It gave us a great chance to see many of the species that we cover in this blog, and many that we don’t, in action. Continue reading

Diversity- Getting by With a Little Help From (Salt) Marsh Friends

2-Minute Video: Marsh cordgrass, needlerush, sea lavender, mussels, periwinkle snails, and fiddler crabs: diversity in the salt marsh.

In Randall’s last post, she looked at whether genetic diversity within the salt marsh foundation species– smooth cordgrass- made for a stronger marsh (and by stronger, of course, we mean better able to shelter yummy blue crabs for people and sea turtles). In today’s post and video, Randall examines how the combination of plants and animals around cordgrass- the species diversity of a marsh- might play a role as well.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Even though salt marshes often look like one big sea of green in the intertidal, there are plants and animals other than marsh cordgrass around. And even though I devote a lot of effort to understanding the effects of diversity just within cordgrass, these other species are also important – no marsh is an island. (Well, actually they are, but you get the analogy.)

Fiddler crab found in a St. Joseph Bay salt marsh.So who is important, and why? There are at least two animals that can be classified as “friends” of cordgrass – fiddler crabs and mussels. Fiddler crabs create burrows that allow oxygen to get down in the sediment, and cordgrass roots appreciate that oxygen. The fiddler crabs also aerate the sediment during their feeding, and they can excrete nutrients that the plants use to grow.

As an aside, fiddler crabs are also irresistible for kids (and maybe adults too!).

Mussels aren’t quite as charismatic as fiddler crabs, but they like to nestle around stems of cordgrass, and the byssal threads that they use to attach to one another and to the sediment can help prevent erosion. In addition, they excrete nutrients and other organic material as a byproduct of their filter-feeding, and the plants take advantage of these nutrients.

While investigating the relationship between mussels and marsh cordgrass, Randall’s graduate student, Althea Moore, noticed that mussels also seemed to often accompany sea lavender in the marsh. This led to a separate study for Althea.

So who is MORE important, mussels or fiddler crabs? We did an experiment to test that question, or really, to test whether having mussels and fiddler crabs together is better than having just one or another. The answer? As with much in ecology – it depends. For one, it depends on what you measure. If you look at the number of cordgrass stems, then fiddler crabs are the better friend – cordgrass with fiddler crabs does better than cordgrass without fiddler crabs, regardless of whether you have mussels or not. But if you look at how tall the plants are (another important characteristic in the marsh), then mussels are the better friend, but only when fiddlers aren’t around. And if you look at the amount of organic content, mussels increase organic content at the sediment surface, whereas fiddlers increase it belowground. In the end, the take-home message is that the more things you measure about the marsh, the more important it becomes that you have both mussels and fiddler crabs in order to be the “best”.

In the process of doing the experiment I described above, Althea (my graduate student) noticed that when she was out in the marsh, she often found mussels in and around sea lavender (Limonium) plants more often than she found them around cordgrass. She became interested in finding out whether the mussels benefit the sea lavender, the sea lavender benefits the mussels, or a little bit of both. She’s still working on the answer, but it just goes to show that although we often tend to focus on who eats who (think Shark Week) or who can beat who (Octopus vs. Shark, anyone? Or, for kids, there’s always Shark vs. Train – a favorite at my house!), there are just as many instances of species helping one another (not that they always intend to).

Of course, it’s not just animals helping (aka, facilitating) plants – plants can help other plant species to. We’ve shown through a series of experiments that cordgrass benefits from having its tall neighbor needlerush (Juncus roemarianus) around, but only if the snails that like to graze on cordgrass are also present. Nothing is ever as simple as it looks in the marsh…

Music in the piece by Revolution Void.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.