Monthly Archives: March 2013

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Crown Conchs- Friend or Foe?

For today’s post, we shift our look at the ecology of fear from oyster reefs to the (often) neighboring salt marsh.  We know crown conchs are villains on oyster reefs, but might they redeem themselves “in the grass?”  If they live on the Forgotten Coast, it depends on what side of Apalachicola they live.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
The Crown Conch (Melongena corona).

The Crown Conch (Melongena corona).

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150If you’re a fan of oysters and you read David’s previous post, then you probably don’t like crown conchs very much. Why? Because David and Hanna’s work shows that crown conchs may be responsible for eating lots of oysters, turning previously healthy reefs into barren outcrops of dead shell.  And we generally prefer that those oysters be left alive to filter water and make more oysters.  And, let’s be honest, we would rather eat them ourselves!

But, in something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act, crown conchs can take on a different persona in the salt marsh. Here, the exact same species acts as the good guy, increasing the abundance of marsh cordgrass.  And more abundant marsh plants generally means more benefits for we humans in the form of erosion control, water filtration, and habitat for the fishes and crabs we like to eat.  How exactly does that work?

Periwinkle in Spartina predator experiment

The Marsh Periwinkle (Littoraria irrotata).

If you look out in a salt marsh in much of the Gulf and Southeast Atlantic, I can nearly guarantee that you’ll see a marsh periwinkle snail. Usually, you’ll see lots and lots of them. These marine snails actually don’t like to get wet – they climb up the stems of the marsh grass as the tide comes in. While they are up there, they sometimes decide to nibble on a little live cordgrass, creating a razor blade-like scar on the plant that is then colonized by fungus. The periwinkles really prefer to eat this fungus instead of the cordgrass, but the damage is done – the fungus can kill the entire cordgrass plant! So these seemingly benign and harmless periwinkles can sometimes wreak havoc on a marsh.

But wait a minute – if periwinkles cause all the cordgrass to die, then why do you still see so much cordgrass (and so many snails) in the marsh? That’s where the crown conch comes in.

Crown conch pursuing periwinkle snail

At the edge of a marsh at high tide, a crown conch approaches a periwinkle snail. As shown in the video above, the conch was soon to make contact with the smaller snail and send it racing (relative term- the video is of course sped up) up a Spartina shoot.

In marshes along the Gulf coast, there are also lots of crown conchs cruising around in the marsh (albeit slowly), and they like to eat periwinkles. Unlike other periwinkle predators such as blue crabs, the crown conchs stick around even at low tide. So when the periwinkles come down for a snack of benthic algae or dead plant material at low tide, the crown conchs are able to nab a few, reducing snail numbers. And fewer snails generally means more cordgrass.

Of course, the periwinkles aren’t dumb, and they often try to “race” away (again, these are snails!) when they realize a crown conch is in the neighborhood. One escape route is back up the cordgrass stems, or even better, up the stems of the taller needlerush that is often nearby. By causing periwinkles to spend time on the needlerush instead of grazing on cordgrass, or by making the periwinkles too scared to eat regardless of where they are sitting, the crown conch offers a second “non-consumptive” benefit for cordgrass. One of our recent experiments found that cordgrass biomass is much higher when crown conchs and periwinkles are present compared to when just periwinkles are present, even though not many periwinkles were actually eaten.

Periwinkle in Spartina predator experimentOn the other hand, if the periwinkles decide to climb up on the cordgrass when they sense a crown conch, and if they aren’t too scared to eat, then crown conchs can actually have a negative effect on the plants. This is exactly what David found in one of his experiments.  In this case, the tides play an important role – west of Apalachicola, where there is 1 high and 1 low tide per day, each tide naturally lasts longer than east of Apalachicola, where there are 2 high tides and 2 low tides per day.  The longer tides west of Apalach appear to encourage the snails not only to stay on the cordgrass, but also to eat like crazy, and the plants bear the brunt of this particular case of the munchies.

So even in the marsh, it turns out that crown conchs can be both a friend and a foe to marsh cordgrass, depending on how the periwinkles respond to them. And figuring out what makes periwinkles respond differently in different situations just gives us more work to do!

Music in the piece by Revolution Void.

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.

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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,

David

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.

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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.)

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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).

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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.