Tag Archives: blue crab


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.

In the 50 years since Rudloe founded Gulf Specimen, the facility has served an eclectic range of services.

Its aquarium features many of the small critters that we’ve chronicled Randall and David studying in Alligator Harbor, Saint Joseph Bay, or Wakulla Beach.  You won’t see any orcas doing backflips for a fish treat.  These are the creatures of our coasts, many of them common (like fiddler crabs), some of them rare (like a white blue crab).  If it’s safe to touch the animals, you can (consult the signs on the tanks).

Loggerhead at Gulf Specimen Marine LabFor almost as long as its been open, Gulf Specimen has run a Sea Turtle Program to rehabilitate injured loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley turtles.  They release 15-20 a year, many of which have swallowed fishing hooks.  The turtle in the aforementioned video is Allie the Loggerhead, released after a year in their care (full story here).  The loggerhead that tries to eat our GoPro camera in the video above is Little Girl, who is on display right now.

And then there’s the reason the lab was originally created, to provide specimens of animals to researchers, both medical and academic.  This keeps animals coming in and going out, so that the critter lineup remains somewhat fluid.

In their outreach in education initiatives, their goals mirror our own on the In the Grass, On the Reef project, only in a more up close and tactile manner.  They want you to know about the critters and their habitats, the threats facing them, and the benefits they provide us.  With their Seamobile, they can take that mission (and the critters) on the road to events like the St. Marks Stone Crab Festival.  After people crack open their claws, they could go and learn about the world their food had inhabited.  After the last year we have learned that this food only gets on your plate when there is a balance between these animals and their environmental conditions.  Sometimes, that balance is off, whether it is an overabundance of oyster drills in Apalachicola or, as we see in the video, octopus in crab traps.  It’s one thing to hear that crabs are being eaten.  It really comes alive, though, when you see it happening.  That’s mission we share with the Gulf Specimen Lab.

Over the next few months, we’ll be seeking out others who work to bring the big, wild, messy outdoors to you.  Is there anyone that you think we should be talking to? Let us know!

What is that octopus hiding under its tentacles?

Coastal Roundup August 17th – August 24th, 2012

Rebecca Wilkerson WFSU-TV

Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance Volunteer Opportunities
August 20th-August 23rd
Fort Walton Beach, FL
(850) 833-9927
For more information visit this Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance volunteer call.

Treasure Hunt Scallop Drop
Bay scallop in St. Joe Bay seagrass bedAugust 17th-September 10th
St. Joseph Bay, FL
(850) 229-7800

16th Annual MBARA Kingfish Tournament

August 25th
Mexico Beach, FL
For more information visit the MBARA tournament page.

“Sopchoppy Stop” Eco-Heritage Tour
P1000534August 25th
Sopchoppy, FL
(850) 926-3376
For more information visit the Sopchoppy Stop tour page.

Riverkeeper’s 4th Saturday Paddle
Apalachicola River at Bloody BluffAugust 25th
Apalachicola River, FL
(850) 653-8936
For more information visit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper site.

License-Free Saltwater Fishing Day
September 1st
Gulf of Mexico
For more information visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife page.



Lionfish 3For the next year, harvesting lionfish will no longer require a fishing license when using certain gear. The recreational and commercial bag limits have also been removed. These changes are effective through August 2013. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is hopeful that the changes will increase harvest opportunities of this nonnative invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico.  For more information on lionfish and the new harvest regulations view this FWC news release.

Lucky for us, these invasive lionfish are delicious. Give these Hot Lionfish Poppers a try after a long day of harvesting.

Crab Trap Closures

Derelict crab trap 3Blue crab trap closures began last week for Florida. These two 10-day trap closures give the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission the opportunity to identify and retrieve lost or abandoned traps that could become a problem for the marine environment. The scheduled closures vary by region. For more information on  the closures or the trap-retrieval program visit this FWC news release.

 Inspiring Adventures

Author Peter Heller sat down with Fresh Air host Terry Gross for an interview about his debut novel, The Dog Stars. An expedition kayaker, Heller explains how he draws inspiration through his often-dangerous adventures and how he relates his experiences to those of his characters. To learn more about Heller’s new novel and his paddling journeys, listen to the full interview on the NPR Books blog.

Safe Sun

Scientists from the University of Strathclyde are looking to put an end to outdoor clock-watching and blistered skin. They’ve created an ultraviolet-ray-detecting wristband that will give a visual warning that you’ve been in the sun long enough, using an acid detecting trigger that will turn the band from yellow to pink. Partners in the project are hopeful that the wristband will be available in spring 2013. Read more about the wristband, and the technology behind it, here.


This Wednesday on WFSU-TV’s dimensions, viewers will be taken to various state parks in our viewing area. This one-tank-adventure will also bring us to Grayton Beach, near where producer Rob Diaz de Villegas shot a previous dimensions segment on the 2008 Back to Nature Festival.

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

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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)

The Path Less Paddled

Take a photo tour of the Forgotten Coast segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  Watch a video on the trail on Wednesday, September 14 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150IGOR chip- habitat 150IGOR chip- gastronomy 150It all happened in about five minutes. The gull swooped down and grabbed a soft-shell blue crab about half its size, abandoned it to a swarm of small fish, whose activity may or may not have attracted a shark coming in from Apalachicola Bay.  I was standing at Sugar Hill, a beach campsite in the St. George Island State Park, the last campsite along the Forgotten Coast segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  You can see this video on tomorrow’s dimensions.

(watch a video on the making of a blue crab molting its shell)

Were a kayaker to try to make the five or six day paddle from Cape San Blas to St. George Island, they would likely see a few of these little dramas play out.  As Doug Alderson (Paddling Trails Coordinator for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails)  says in the piece, it’s one of the wildest stretches of the statewide trail.  That means it has a lot of nice scenery of coastal habitats.  Much more interesting, though, is that they are functioning habitats.

Predatory snails on Sugar Hill Beach at St. George Island State Park

Large predatory snails congregating on a tree stump at Sugar Hill camp site.

For instance, Doug loves to catch redfish when he camps on St. George; and they’re always there for him.  But why are these fish so abundant in Apalachicola Bay?  The answer is in those tasty oysters that put the name Apalachicola on the map.  Oyster reefs are a refuge for all kinds of animals like stone crabs, blue crabs, and various predatory snails and small fish.  It’s an all you can eat buffet for larger fish looking for those small fish and little mud crabs.  The action I described above happened by a seagrass bed not far offshore.  Those beds thrive in water that oysters filter clean, and so they provide another habitat for marine life in the bay.  I ate Apalachicola oysters for years without realizing just how much they give, and give, and give…

Rob and Debbie by kayak

Rob photographs small fish and crabs that Debbie scooped out of St. Joe Bay.

At the other end of the trail, In Saint Joseph Bay, we caught up with Dan and Debbie VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost.  When WFSU first started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, we rented our kayaks from Dan and Debbie.  Debbie’s been wanting to take us snorkeling for a while, to get some video of some of the critters living in seagrass beds in St. Joe Bay.  Kayaking over the shallow waters in the bay, you can see the turtlegrass from where you’re sitting, as well as rays, horseshoe crabs, and snails making their way about the sandy bottom.  To see the creatures living in the seagrass beds, you have to get out of the kayak.  This is where you have to be careful.

It is illegal to remove shells from St. Joseph BayWhen I say be careful, I’m not just talking about your safety, though you should shuffle your feet to alert stingrays that you’re coming, or if you kayak to St. Vincent Island, definitely stay out of the way of charging boars.  You also have to be careful with these habitats, and the marine life within them.  Dan and Debbie (and local law enforcement) are very big on people not taking seashells out of the bay.  Taking a bunch of whelks and crown conchs out of the bay means taking out critical predators, removing a top layer in the local food web.  And, as the sign implies, even a dead shell has a role to play (any hermit crab would agree).  It’s called the “leave no trace” approach, and there are tips on how to best accomplish this on the trail website.  There are also safety tips and maps.  If you’re attempting anything more than a day trip along this trail, it’s a pretty comprehensive resource.

Doug has put a lot of work into mapping the trail- it took three years- and assembling resources so that people could best enjoy it.  You can hear the love he has for paddling when he reads from his book, Wild Florida Waters.  You’ll hear a couple of passages in the show tomorrow.  Even hearing him read about paddling in a strong wind kind of gets me excited about going out again.  It reminds me of paddling to safety in St. Joe Bay after a sudden thunderstorm erupts, or paddling in December when the cold water numbed my hands.  It’s not as predicable a form of recreation as visiting a beach resort.  But it’s never boring.

Doug and Josh

Thanks to Doug (L) for talking to us, and Park Ranger Josh Hodson for driving us around St. George Island State Park.

Dan and Debbie from Happy Ours

Thanks to Debbie and Dan for taking us out.

Have fun out there.  And share your stories with us!  Click on the Ecotourism North Florida link above if you have an eco-adventure you’d like to see us cover.

Coastal Critters and More at the FSUCML Open House

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150

When I heard it was supposed to rain on Saturday, I was a little bummed. I was planning on taking the family to the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab Open House followed by the FSU Spring Game (where my 12-week old son could attend his first football game featuring my two favorite teams).  Luckily, the storms rolled through early in the morning and made for a nice day at the coast.

P1030210I started off by visiting my friends at the Randall Hughes and David Kimbro labs.  Robyn and Emily held down the fort in the Hughes lab, where kids watched a very peculiar sport.  As Randall’s previous post promised, there were indeed periwinkle snail races.  As you can see from the photo at the right here, the snails were color coded (white and blue) and numbered so that they could be told apart.  Some crown conchs (periwinkle predators) were placed into the tubs to give the smaller snails some incentive to climb.  The fastest climbers won.  Let’s watch part of one race:

Continue reading

Reviewing the Oyster Study in 2010

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150IGOR chip- biogeographic 150IGOR chip- habitat 150IGOR chip- employment 150

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

David's collaborators, from left to right- Dr. Jeb Byers, Dr. Mike Piehler, Dr. Jon Grabowski, and Dr. Randall Hughes.

As you can see from the video that summarized our efforts over 2010, it was a busy 6 months of research.  After taking a great break during the holidays, the entire oyster team (Jon = Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Mike = University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jeb = University of Georgia, Randall = Florida State University and me) met for a long weekend to figure out what we accomplished and where we are going in the future.

You might think that our 2011 research plans should already be set given that we received funding.  Well, we did receive funding to carry out some outlandish field experiments in 2011, but these experiments were dreamed up in our offices and may not address the most ecologically relevant questions for our system.   Checking in with the monitoring data is probably the best way to determine if our planned experiments were on target or if they needed to be adjusted and hopefully simplified!

Prior to the oyster summit last weekend, I hounded all of the research teams for all of their data.  Given the huge volume of data and everyone’s busy schedules with teaching classes and other research projects, this was quite the task.  Once Tanya meshed all the data together (also not a simple task), I then moved on to the next task of analyzing our data.

Well, the initial excitement quickly turned into a stomach churning feeling of….where the heck do I begin?  Similar to the way that too many prey can reduce the effectiveness of predators, the data were swamping me…I was overwhelmed and the draining hourglass wasn’t helping (people were flying into town in two days…yikes!).

After multiple cups of coffee, the anxiety passed and I decided to revisit some basic questions:


David's team used gill nets to catch the larger fish around the reefs, many of which are top predators in that habitat.

(1) With the gill nets, we obtained predatory fish data.  So how do the abundance and biomass of these fishes vary across latitude? And does this pattern change with season (i.e., summer versus fall)?

(2) Then I thought back to the fond memories of ripping up oyster habitat to check out the abundance of things that consume oysters (e.g., mud crabs).  Oh…the memory of that work gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling; I bet Tanya, Hanna, Linda and everyone else that helped feel the same way!  How do the abundances of these things change across latitude?  Are there larger crabs up north or down south?  How does the mud crab picture mesh with the predatory fish picture?


This spat stick is made of calcium carbonate, the same substance as oyster shell, and is ridged to simulate the ridges in those shells. That makes it an attractive landing spot for oyster spat (larval oysters), which tend to settle on oyster shells.

(3) Working our way down the food web and sticking with the oyster samples we ripped up back in August, how do oyster densities and oyster size change across latitude and how do these patterns mesh with the mudcrab and predatory fish data?

(4) Finally, I wanted to revisit the data from our instrumentation to see how temperature and salinity changed across latitude and with season, as well as the data from our spat sticks to see how oyster recruitment differed.

It’s pretty amazing that six months of work can be summarized so quickly into four topics.  Well, I kept hitting the coffee and got all of these data worked up in time for the first portion of our oyster summit.  Surprisingly, all inbound flights arrived on time and we all assembled last Friday to go over the data.  I’ll briefly lift the research curtain to illustrate what our data looked like:

Jeb cuts blue crab from shark belly

The Georgia reef gill nets trapped a lot of sharks. Here Dr. Jeb Byers is removing blue crabs (also an oyster reef predator) from shark bellies. The trapping done on these reefs is clarifying the food web for these habitats.

(1) Although we predicted predator abundance to increase at lower latitudes, predator abundance and the number of different predators peaked in Georgia/South Carolina.  This is because lots of the species we have in Florida were also in Georgia.  And, Georgia has lots of sharks!  Needless to say, Jeb’s crew has been the busiest during gillnet sampling.  Jon and Mike’s crew have had it pretty easy (no offense)!  The workload reduced for everyone in the fall, but the differences across latitude stayed relatively the same.  The really cool result was the pattern that hardhead catfish are extremely important and the most abundant predatory fish on Florida reefs; I love those slimy things.

(2) Interestingly, mudcrab biomass peaked up north where predatory fishes were less abundant.

(3) And the abundance of large, market size oysters was highest where predatory fish were most abundant (GA/SC).

(4) Amazingly, we all did a good job selecting oyster reefs with equivalent salinities (this can vary a lot just within one estuary) and temperature was the same across all of our sites until December….instrumentation up north got covered in ice!  Glad I was assigned the relatively tropical reefs in Florida.  Finally, oyster recruitment in NC and Florida appears to proceed at a trickle while that of GA/SC is a flood-like situation during the summer.


A month after first being deployed, Tanya and Hanna inspect an Alligator Harbor tile. You can see that some of the oysters have definitely started growing, but also that some of the spat became unglued. When they run the experiment again, they'll use a different adhesive more suitable for a marine environment.

After we all soaked that in, we then talked about the tile experiment.  While these data were really cool (mortality presumably due to mudcrabs was lowest where predatory fish were most abundant = GA), we worried about being able to tease apart the effects of flow, sedimentation, and predation.  Unfortunately, this experiment seems to uphold my record with experiments: they never work the first time.  We’ll probably repeat this in fall of 2011 with a much better design to account for flow and sedimentation.

Before breaking for a nice communal dinner at my place, Mike summarized the nutrient cycling (sediment) data that we have been collecting.  In short, having lots of living oysters really promotes de-nitrification processes and our sampling picked this up.

Putting this all together, it looks like there are latitudinal patterns in fish predators that may result in mudcrab density and size patterns.  Together, these may help account for latitudinal patterns in oysters (highest in GA).  This all matters because more oysters = more denitrification = healthier estuarine waters.


On day 2 of the summit, we worked through what made us happy about the monitoring data, what things we could add on to make us happier, and that we should continue this monitoring through the summer of 2011.  This actually took all morning.


On day 2, the oyster summit moved into the more comfortable location of the Marine Lab guest house.

After a quick lunch break, we then reconvened in another room with a better view (nice to change up the scenery) to go over how we should experimentally test the linkages I mentioned above.  This is where the saw blade of productivity met a strong wood knot.  Personally, I became horribly confused, fatigued and was utterly useless.  This resulted in lots of disagreement on how to proceed and possibly a few ruffled feathers.  But nothing that some good food and NFL playoff football couldn’t cure.

After taking in a beautiful winter sunset over the waters off the lab, we ditched the work and began rehashing old and funny stories about each other.

Amazingly, we awoke the next morning and fashioned together a great experimental design that we will implement beginning June 2011.  To Jeb’s disappointment, this will not involve large sharks, but we will get to play with catfish!

But now it’s time to prepare for our winter fish and crab sampling.  It will be interesting to see what uses these reefs during the dark and cold of winter!

Thanks for following us during 2010, and please stick around for 2011 as I’m sure things will get really interesting as we prepare for our large field experiment.



David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

Cold and Wet: Field Research in the Winter

Waves on Cape San Blas rocks

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- employment 150I was driving to Stump Hole with my production assistant Kevin when we saw these waves crashing on the rocks on the beach side of Cape San Blas.  Like any good production people, we knew the only thing to do was to climb the rocks and get footage and stills of the scene.  The same wind pushing the waves at us rocked us a little bit as we balanced- only slightly precariously- on the big stones.  It was a little after 8:30 AM and we had some time to kill before Randall and her team showed up.  And then we would kayak into the bay just across the street.

In early December I made my first winter forays into coastal environments.  Randall has already written about the seasonal shift from Summer to Autumn, where the flora and fauna are reproducing and animals are abundant in the marshes.  Winter is an entirely different beast, as I would see when we got to their sites.  But first, we actually had to get to these sites.


After everyone was there, we kayaked east from Stump Hole with a stiff north wind pushing us on our left.  Rowing to the left was like rowing into a wall, and there were a couple of marshes in our way where we had to get out and lug the kayaks to the other side.  Saltwater splashed into my eyes and onto my glasses.  I kept my squinty eyes forward and we got to a site that for the purposes of this study is known as Island 4.

The research crew went about their normal survey work, with Randall taking a quadrat to several specific spots within the marsh to see how much grass and other species were within its PVC boundary, how tall the grass is and how many Spartina shoots were dead.  Using markers and a GPS, they’ll have data from these precise spots over a span of three years.  Emily and Hanna vacuumed bugs out of the grass and surveyed seagrass wrack.  They will, as always, search for patterns over time, and I suspect the data collected in the winter months will quantify some of what we saw with our own eyes.

Sea Urchin shell washed up on marsh

While we didn't see the usual critters swimming and crawling about, some cool stuff washed in from the bay, such as sponges, lightning whelk egg casings, and this sea urchin shell.

Last time I was at this site, some male blue crabs were fighting over a female.  They were so engrossed that I was able to get fairly close without their bolting away.  All manner of predatory snails oozed about, little fish darted in and out of the sparse shoots at the periphery, and a ray laid low in an adjacent seagrass bed.  Today it looked like they had all packed up and left for the season.  And, when it came time to go our next site, so had the water in the bay.

A combination of the tide and the strong wind left the south side of the bay somewhat empty.  Taking a few steps with our kayaks in hand, we decided instead to leave them at the island while we walked our gear over to a mainland marsh known as Wrack 5.


This was another site where I had always seen an abundance of fauna. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of fiddler crabs would scurry away from me into the grass in this one corner of the marsh.  As Randall explained to me, the fiddlers bury themselves in the winter.  Blue crabs swim into the deeper part of the bay, to the north.  Randall didn’t know exactly what happened to the crown conchs, though when digging cordgrass up for an experiment she had come upon a buried conch.  And with their predators all gone, the marsh periwinkles had descended to the bottom of the spartina plants.

Lightning Whelk shellOne thing I did see a lot of were lightning whelk shells.  I picked them up and looked inside, wondering, are they more cold tolerant than the other species?  They’re not.  But their shells were pretty.

The following Monday I went to Alligator Harbor with Tanya and Hanna, and it was a lot of the same.  We dragged our kayaks from the ramp to the first site and walked between the islands to the second and third sites.  It was a much muckier walk than in St. Joe Bay (the oysters like it mucky), and I was breaking in a new pair of crappy old sneakers to be my oyster reef shoes.  This is how they fared:


Now that I’ve muddied my hands pulling my shoe out, where’s all that water?

Have any of you trekked out into the cold coastal waters this season? Share your stories!

The Real Snowbirds

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Photographers wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks

Photographers wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks.

IGOR chip- habitat 150We don’t often discuss birds here, preferring instead to discuss many of the critters they eat along our coasts. But I see the bird prints in the oyster reef mud, and kayak by the pelicans in Saint Joe Bay.  They are as much a part of those habitats as the snails and the crabs.  And every winter, just as sure as you’ll see Ohio and Michigan plates heading south on I-75, you’ll see the flocks that lend the drivers of those cars the nickname us Floridians have for them.

But what happens when the birds forget the way down?  Sometimes, a species numbers get so low that juveniles no longer have the adults who know the way to lead them.  So they need a little help in reestablishing the route.

Possibly the most famous bird of this description brought me to a large field by the St. Marks River almost two years ago.  That was the first year that whooping cranes were flying to a secluded area within the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and I was covering the flyover for our dimensions program (it’s that video up there).  It seemed like it took forever for them to get there.  Starting from the cranes’ Wisconsin habitats, Operation Migration pilots in ultralight planes make the journey south in several short hops. For almost a month I received e-mails saying that they could arrive within a week, but unfavorable winds were keeping the birds grounded nearby in Alabama.  Finally, it was announced that they would fly in early on Saturday, January 17.

They expected it to happen between 7 and 8 AM, but advised people to get there early.  I was surprised to see the parking area half full at 6 AM.  It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and cars kept piling in.  Did I mention it was Saturday?  Over two thousand people made it out for that minute or two when seven birds and three ultralight planes flew several hundred feet over our heads and into their area of the Refuge.

Crowds wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks

An enthusiastic crowd gathers to watch Wisconsinite tourists travel to their winter digs.

Yesterday, a group of five juveniles was guided in, over a month earlier than in the first year.  From the photos I saw, it was still a nice large crowd.  People love endangered birds, and the whooping crane is an impressive animal.

It’s ironic that a species whose existence as a whole seems so fragile comes in as a top predator in our local salt marsh habitats.  Its favorite food is blue crab, though it is an omnivore that eats other crustaceans, as well as clams, fish, frogs and small reptiles.  As we have seen over the last few months on this blog, they’re at a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet here.  Numbering only five, they aren’t a significant part of the coastal food web.  Yet.  But as long as we have healthy habitat to offer, and the Operation Migration folks keep teaching birds the way, they might become a more regular part of the Forgotten Coast winter.

Your comment is welcome!

Just one more thing…

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Setting up a tank experiment

Emily and Robyn setting up yet another tank experiment that I've dreamed up. (Thanks to Nancy Smith for the pic!)

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Because of the big focus on oysters over the last month, it may seem as if we haven’t been doing anything “In the grass”. We’ve been busy, though, trying to squeeze in a few additional surveys and experiments in November before it gets cold enough that the animals stop eating (or eating very much, I should say) and the plants stop growing. For a while there, I was coming up with so many end of season ideas that I’m pretty sure my crew hated to see me coming!  We just did finish up before the winter weather arrived (early) in December. (More on what it’s like working in this cold weather in future posts.)

We actually missed the opportunity to do one of our planned studies involving grasshoppers – there was a cold snap two nights before we went in the field to get the hoppers, and they were nowhere to be found.   Those data will have to wait until next spring when the grasshoppers turn up again!

We’ve had better luck with two other projects –

1. Do snails prefer to climb on cordgrass reproductive stems?

More snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems

Snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems in the field.

Spartina reproductive shoot

A tasty snack for a periwinkle snail?

I’ve mentioned before on the blog that we noticed lots of snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems this fall. In collaboration with David and his team, we visited marsh sites along the Panhandle to see if our observations would be supported with rigorously collected data. So far, so good!


The trusty tank set-up at FSUCML.

We also started a series of experiments in our trusty tanks at the FSU marine lab to tease apart why snails may have this preference: Do the snails simply like that the reproductive stems are taller than regular stems? Or do the reproductive stems “taste” better because of greater nutrient content? Does it matter if predators are present or not? The preliminary results suggest that they like the reproductive stems, regardless of whether they are taller or not. In January, we’ll head into the lab to do the tests for nutrient content that should help us to tease apart why that may be.

2. Does needlerush provide a better predation refuge than cordgrass?

A patch of needlerush surrounded by cordgrass

Needlerush (center patch) is typically much taller than cordgrass (surrounding area) in St. Joe Bay

Last fall I did a tank experiment to look at whether snails prefer to climb on another marsh plant species, needlerush (Juncus roemerianus), and whether this preference increased snail survival when predators were around. The results were interesting, but as usual, the first round of the experiment created additional questions that required more work. In November we started a similar experiment, again in the tanks at the marine lab, looking at snail climbing behavior on needlerush and cordgrass in the presence and absence of the snail’s nemesis, the blue crab.

Needlerush is naturally taller than cordgrass, so to test if this difference in height can explain snail behavior, we “experimentally manipulated” (in other words, used scissors to cut the needlerush down to a shorter height) needlerush height: some tanks have naturally tall needlerush, some have needlerush that is on average the same height as the cordgrass, and some have needlerush that is shorter than the cordgrass. Add a blue crab to half of the tanks, and voilà, the experiment is underway!

blue crabIt’s a bit ironic that each of the experiments we recently finished converged on a similar idea – snails appear to prefer to climb on taller plants. Considering that the taller the plant, the farther they can climb away from predators in the water, it makes sense. The true question is to figure out whether and why it matters that the snails do this. If they climb on reproductive stems, are fewer cordgrass seeds produced? What will that mean for next year’s crop of cordgrass? Also, if snails spend a lot of time hanging out on needlerush to avoid predators, does that mean they don’t eat as much cordgrass? Knowing things as seemingly arcane as which plant a snail prefers to climb on can help us predict and manage the overall abundance and productivity of cordgrass, and the salt marsh in general. And of course, the field work and experiments are fun! Especially when you get to wrestle with blue crabs…

Here are some photos of periwinkle snails in Randall’s latest tank experiments:

Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Way Back When On the Reef

IGOR chip- employment 150Along with David’s remembrances of his early life in marine biology, we have a video on one of David’s collaborators in this oyster study, Jeb Byers. Like all of the collaborators on the study, Jeb attended the University of North Carolina, where he overlapped with Jon Grabowski.  Alicia Brown was sent up to help Jeb’s team during the October Oyster Push, so we lent her a Flip camera to document the proceedings.  She got footage of some of the fish they caught, including the sharks that predate their reefs.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab


L to R- Tanya Rogers, Dr. Jon Grabowski, Hanna Garland, and Dr. David Kimbro. Here you have three "generations" of researchers and techs. Just as David was once Jon's lab technician, Hanna and Tanya help David today with his projects.

Burrrrr….it’s cold down here and I love it…a nice break from the no see’ums! We are gearing up to hit the road for some regular sampling (water/sediment sampling and down load instrumentation) as well as to check on the tile experiment that began 6 weeks ago. Props again to Tanya for getting us organized to go! Although, I have some anxiety about what I’ll see on the tiles because the adhesive we used to affix the oysters may not be working as planned; more on that that in the next post after we get a visual on things.

For now, I want to pick up where Randall last left off by reminiscing about how I first got into the research/oyster business and how it’s all Jon’s fault. Like Randall, I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was equally clueless about what I wanted to do in life. However, I did know that the coast was where I wanted to be.

While Randall, Jon, and many others where schlepping around tons of oyster shell in the hot North Carolinian summer, I was having a good time surfing by day and waiting tables by night.  All in all, I’d say that my summer was much more relaxing than theirs!

But after spending lots of time enjoying the coastal environment, I realized that I needed to look into this whole marine science thing. So, I began to nose around UNC’s marine lab and volunteered a little bit. By this time, Randall had taken off to teach middle school and Jon just got a prestigious offer to conduct research in Antarctica. But there was one glitch: who was going to run his oyster project in NC? He couldn’t just push the pause button on this research. Luckily, he had one last greater helper (Meg) whom he began training to be the boss. But she needed an underling. Enter me. Because they could not find a qualified research technician within three counties to hire, Jon decided to give ignorant me a shot. I was immediately told that the work was grueling and that the pay was peanuts. But I figured it had to be better than sitting indoors and watching the clock. Plus, Randall had already done the hard work by building all of those reefs; thank goodness I wasn’t on board for that madness!

Reaping the rewards from all the hard work that Randall and Jon exerted to build the oyster reefs, I got the easy work of just monitoring them and it was fun. When Jon returned from Antarctica, he saw that I hadn’t messed up anything too badly. That, coupled with my always asking him research questions made him decide to give me a little project of my own. And it is this experience that really sent me on my way into marine ecology. So, as I paddle my kayak out to the oyster reefs, think about interesting research questions, and enjoy the scenery, I often think back about the wonderful and fortuitous opportunity that Jon first gave me.

mud crab on Alligator Harbor oyster reef

Mud crab (Panopeus herbstrii)

Ok, do I have any stories? Of course. One classic story that seems to get re-told every time Jon and I get together concerns our ripping up his restored oyster reefs to see what critters lived within them. Now, Jon was really interested in mud crabs, how they affected oysters by eating them, and how larger predators affected this dynamic by eating or scaring the mud crabs. So, while I (the rookie) was working through samples, he was a bit concerned that I was missing many of the smaller crabs. Knowing about his concern as well as being a little bit grumpy about being over worked and being a little naughty, I decided to leave about 5 or so pretty large mud crabs in my sieve. I then said, “hey Jon, to make sure I’m doing this correctly, will you check over my sample to see if I missed any crabs?”. By this time, I had already processed many, many hours worth of samples. So, when Jon looked at my sieve, he immediately freaked out and thought about how many of the other samples I must of messed up. Oh, I had such a good laugh. Thirteen years later, I think this story still gets Jon’s blood pressure up.


Years later, David heads his own team, and he and Randall are colleagues and collaborators with Dr. Grabowski.

What else…well, the winter work was so boring in North Carolina (lots of indoor time spent going through sediment samples) that I had to turn to coffee to help me make it through the late afternoon; with Meg’s persuasion (she was an addict and wanted some company). I stubbornly refused this drug all throughout college because I did not want to be an addict with smelly coffee breathe. But Meg was very persuasive and she started me out with small doses of Dunkin Donuts froofy, flavored coffees. Boy, this and some good 80’s music really helped me survive the late afternoon hours of sorting Jon’s samples in the lab. Next thing you know, I’m asking Jon for a coffee break (“hey man, can I take a quick trip to the Double D?”) every afternoon. Because Jon was a stingy boss (I say this with love), my and Meg’s new afternoon routine really annoyed Jon. But gosh, had I been open-minded about the joys of coffee back in college, I would have graduated with honors! In summary, the boringness of Jon’s project during the winter gave rise to my love of coffee (as Tanya eloquently captured in her last post), and it bugged the crap out of Jon…that and my caffeinated singing of 80’s songs in his lab during the later winter afternoons.

I could keep going with more stories, but I don’t want to give Tanya and Hanna any ideas or ammunition, so I’ll stop here.

Talk soon,

David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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