Tag Archives: deepwater horizon oil spill

The “In the Grass” Top 10 of 2010

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150IGOR chip- employment 150 In keeping with all of the other end-of-year top 10 lists, I’ll wrap up 2010 with my own observations and highlights from In the Grass

10. No tarballs – yet??
The over-riding event of the 2010 research season was undoubtedly the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (In fact, that was the impetus for the start of this blog!) Early in the summer, I thought our marsh field sites in St. Joseph Bay were doomed to be covered in oil. I am very relieved to say that is not the case – there are no visible signs of oil at our sites. It’s too soon to say we’re in the clear, because there is still a lot of oil that is unaccounted for, and there could certainly be “invisible” traces only detectable by laboratory analyses. However, we’re in much better shape than I would have predicted back when this all began, and that’s as good a way as any to start a new year!

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Members of Team Hughes surveying the marsh.

9. It takes a lot of people to conduct scientific research.
I had a lot of help over the course of the last year – Team Hughes consisted of (in no particular order) Robyn Zerebecki, Ryan Corley, Emily Field, Althea Moore, Liz Hibner, Kristin Berger, Michele Sosa, Prathyusha Pamidi, and AJ Gelin, and we often enlisted members of Team Kimbro as well.

But even that list does not really represent all of the many people who help to get the work done. There are friends and family (thanks, Mom!) that get roped into helping when no one else is available. In addition, there’s an entire staff here at the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab who see to it that we have all the necessary paperwork complete, decks and tables for our experiments at the lab, seawater flowing to our tanks, irrigation systems in the greenhouse, boats and vehicles to get to our sites, and any number of other odd requests that we come up with. They don’t get nearly enough recognition for the critical role that they play!

8. It’s not as scary as I thought to have a camera documenting my every move in the field.
Field work is neither glamorous nor graceful, so I was a bit worried when we started this blog about having goof-ups documented on video. Thanks to the great work of Rob and his team, it’s actually been quite fun!  I hardly even notice their presence when we’re in the field, and I love having so many good photos of critters and field sites, since I’m notoriously bad about taking pictures.  Most importantly from my perspective, Rob has a great eye for what is important to include (the science, and the people and process behind the science) and what is not (my team and me clumsily getting out of our kayaks, which never fails to look silly!).

Lightning Whelk

Lightning whelks grace many of the habitats studied by Randall and David.

7. Marine plants and invertebrates are really cool.
Ok, this observation has nothing in particular to do with 2010, but I have to put in a plug for the amazing critters that don’t immediately come to mind when you think of charismatic marine animals. I’m talking snails, crown conchs, fiddler crabs, sea hares – all the little guys – and the habitats they live in – salt marshes, seagrass beds, and oyster reefs. Even nondescript sand bars are amazing. I was out last week with Cristina, a visiting researcher in David’s lab, on a sand bar near FSUCML. We found all sorts of large predatory snails (horse conchs, tulip snails, lightning whelks) as well as tons of sand dollars, clams, and worms. Just walking around, looking at, and counting these critters made for one of my most fun field excursions in recent memory. (It didn’t hurt that it wasn’t freezing cold.)

Learn more about the predatory snails Randall saw at Baymouth Bar.

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Black mangrove (Avicennia) growing in St. Joe Bay

6. Sometimes things are hiding in plain sight.
When Dr. Ed Proffitt visited in the fall, I told him that I thought I may be able to find a spot in St. Joe Bay with 1 or 2 black mangroves for us to look at. Turns out, it’s harder to find a spot that does NOT have 1 or 2 black mangroves! I’m really interested to follow their abundance over the next few years to learn more about their response to climate change and their potential impacts on salt marsh systems in this region.

Read about Randall’s collaboration with Ed.

5. Going out on the reef is pretty fun, too.
Though I spend most of my time in the salt marsh, it was fun to return to oyster reefs this fall to collaborate with David, his team, and our more distant collaborators. A lot of the more mobile animal species in the marsh are also found on the reef (crown conchs, blue crabs), which is a reminder that we shouldn’t treat these different habitats in isolation of one another.

Randall writes about her return to the reef.

More snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems

Snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems in the field.

4. Snails are more complicated than you think.
It seems pretty straightforward – periwinkle snails climb on cordgrass to escape their predators and consume dead leaves / stems. Except that sometimes they prefer to climb on plants that they apparently don’t eat. And sometimes they create razor-like cuts in live cordgrass and graze the fungus that colonizes the resulting scar. And sometimes they climb up the plant but don’t eat anything, waiting instead until the water retreats and they can return to the sediment surface to consume plant litter…

On a related note, for Christmas my parents gave me the wonderful book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. The author, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, provides a compelling account of the delightfulness and intrigue of snails.

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Grasshopper grazing damage on a cordgrass stem

3. Grasshoppers eat a lot.

Snails are really abundant in the marsh, and because they don’t move very quickly, it’s impossible not to notice them and wonder about their effects. However, there’s a whole suite of bugs that don’t stay put long enough to be counted as easily (unless of course you suck them into a bug vacuum or catch them in a sweep net), grasshoppers being key among them. Our tank experiments show that the grasshoppers can consume lots of living plant material in a short period of time, serving as a useful reminder that I should wonder about the things I don’t see as much as those I do see.

Who can eat more- Grasshoppers or snails?

2. It’s fun to do science with friends.
A recent study indicated that scientific collaborations have a greater impact if the researchers work in close physical proximity to one another. I don’t doubt the results – who doesn’t find it easier to reach a consensus in person than over a Skype conference call? However, I’m happy to be working with David, Jon, Jeb, and Mike “on the reef” despite the geographic distance. Not only are they the right people in terms of research expertise, but our shared history makes it easier to communicate (including to give each other a hard time!).

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Rainbow over St. Joe Bay on Christmas Day 2010 (photo credit: L. Hughes)

1. Did I mention that my research sites are not covered in oil?  Hooray!

Best wishes in 2011!

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

Under the Surface at Pensacola Beach

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Last month, I ventured just outside the Forgotten Coast to Pensacola Beach. I was serving as videographer for Matt Roush and FSU Headlines.  The piece was on research by Marcus Huettel and Joel Kostka on some important little critters (we love important little critters), really little ones.  The sand was a gleaming white, reflecting the sun onto me and burning my feet.  Parents and children swam in the water while a row of bulldozers sat idle with bored cleanup workers resting in the shade of their machines’ canopies.  At a glance, it didn’t look like the beach had recently been covered in a mat of crude oil.

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Operation Noah’s Ark

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

The video above is from our dimensions program. It dovetails nicely with what we care about on this site, which is the ecology of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, in this case salt marshes.  The idea is that, when looking to minimize potential oil damage to our coast, you start with its smallest building blocks.  Operation Noah’s Ark, based out of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, is collecting a lot of little critters that live in places like salt marshes. The fiddler crab helps maintain the marsh with its burrows, which bring oxygen to cordgrass roots.  In that grass, juvenile mullet find shelter, as do blue crabs and juvenile pinfish.  The Kemps-Ridley Sea Turtle eats those blue crabs, and those pinfish will mature and swim out into the gulf to be eaten by gag grouper.  You can see how one species becoming compromised can have a cascading effect throughout the Gulf.
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“Thicker than Water” Opening

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150We have some photos from the event, and you can see the turnout was good.  The SAIL Bluegrass Ensemble played in the garden.  It never ceases to amaze me how many young people in Tallahassee not only get into bluegrass but put on a good show.  Inside, there were some artful cards made by LeMoyne students that could be obtained by donating, and which were intended to be sent to legislators so that people could express their concerns over offshore drilling in Florida.  And then of course there was the art.  Allison Jackson’s oil paintings were featured in our previous post.  They depict scenes along the Forgotten Coast, or scenes featuring animals of the Forgotten Coast.  Patrick Lane had some mixed media pieces, some of which are featured in the slideshow below.  Their artwork will be sold and the proceeds split between LeMoyne Center for Visual Arts and two organizations, both of whom were present on Friday.

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Thicker than Water: an Exhibit of Community Concern

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150The show opening tonight at the LeMoyne Center for Visual Arts has a topic close to our hearts.  It’s called “Thicker than Water: an Exhibit of Community Concern,” and it features works by two artists concerned about human impact on Gulf ecosystems.  The proceeds from tonight will be split three was between the art center, Crude Awakening Tallahassee and the Florida Wild Mammal Association, and the Wild Mammal Association will have some statistics on the current crisis.  The artists are Patrick Lane and Allison Jackson.  Allison’s paintings are featured in the slideshow above.  One painting is titled St. Joseph Bay, which is of course where  we are following Dr. Randall Hughes and her biodiversity in salt marsh ecology study.  The first painting of the slideshow features something that’s been a common sight the last couple of months in the bay, horseshoe crabs coupling.

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Is it over?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Since my last post, oil has stopped spewing from the Deepwater Horizon well, a very welcome development in what has been a long and grim story. Although it is tempting to feel that we are out of the woods, all one needs to do is consider the amount of oil that has entered the Gulf to realize that it will be a long time before we fully understand the ecological impacts of this disaster, much less fully recover from it.

That said, the probability that the marshes I study in St. Joseph Bay and Apalachee Bay are going to be directly impacted by oil has declined dramatically. You may wonder, were our efforts to collect “pre-oil” data wasted? The answer is no, for a number of reasons:

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Enjoy Them While You Can


IGOR chip- employment 150After all the time we’ve spent on oyster reefs, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the little guys mean to us culturally.  The video above is from Our Town, Apalachicola and features the famed oystermen of that town.  The article below is a little more personal.

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We had just finished interviewing John Spohrer for a photography feature and, well, we were in Apalachicola.  So I decided to conduct what our oyster researcher Dr. David Kimbro would call an exercise in predator-prey relationships.  My prey was some of Apalachicola’s finest product, and it wasn’t even an R month.  Me and my wife Amy (who is also my production co-conspirator) decided to try a place with a decent-sized crowd of friendly locals out front, the Hole in the Wall.  Amy did not eat any oysters and this was her last shoot with me for this project.  More on that later.

People in Apalachicola are proud of their product.  The man shucking the oysters behind the bar would excitedly declare “Oh, that’s a good one” as he picked them out of the ice.  The perpetually smiling waitress who brought them to the table would come by every once in a while and ask “How do you like your oysters?”

“They’re delicious,” I’d say.

“Enjoy them while you can…”

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Dr. David Kimbro in Alligator Harbor

I did enjoy them, as I have for years.  People in these parts have for quite a while.  Longer than you may realize.  At nearby St. Vincent Island, ancient oyster shells and pottery shards lie in piles called middens, evidence of a long disappeared people.  The shells have been dated at 4,000 years old or older.  This means that people have been enjoying these oysters for thousands of years.  It’s an impressive legacy, especially when you consider how some of our country’s other historical oyster producing areas have fared over time.  The Chesapeake Bay used to be difficult to navigate it was so cluttered with reefs.  New York City used to be renowned for the oysters harvested there, they were a staple of the Big Apple until just under a century ago.  But while those habitats have been decimated, Gulf oyster reefs retain their abundance and quality.  When we accompanied David Kimbro on the first day of his study in Alligator Harbor, the scientist who had been studying reefs in North Carolina and California marveled at the size of the reefs.  He’d never seen so many.

I fell like I was rubbing it in Amy’s face eating those oysters, even if she had been looking forward to enjoying the local seafood as much as I was.  We had done the research and shrimp were an acceptable food, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids important to brain development in embryos.  This was her last shoot, as the days were growing hotter and we spend some long days on marshes and reefs.  Our child will be born a Floridian, like I was.  I’ve been spoiled by great beaches, a steady supply of fresh seafood, wetlands bursting with animal and plant life.  I wonder in what kind of Florida my child will grow up.  Will he or she have at their disposal what Floridians have had over the last few thousand years?  No one can really say.  Even if the worst happens, there is hope that we can restore it, even if it could never be exactly the same.  In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was told.  I’ll enjoy it while I can.

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You can’t enjoy watching the game if you don’t know who the players are

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

See David and his crew in action, and see what animals are on Alligator Harbor reefs.

IGOR chip- habitat 150The title of this blog (a sports metaphor) is how my teacher first introduced me to marine ecology. For our oyster project, this essentially means that we need to establish who is on the oyster reefs before we can begin to make connections among predators, oysters, and their water filtration services….as well as (unfortunately) the impacts of oil.

So far, we’ve identified the organisms on the bottom rung of our food web (think of it has a pyramid): oysters, clams, amphipods, and polychaetes on the bottom rung of the food web and mud crabs and snapping shrimp on the next higher rung of the food web. Our goal this week was to begin quantifying who is at the top of this food pyramid. To do this, we deployed crab traps, bait-fish pots, and gill nets onto each of our reefs during low tide. Following the ensuing flood tide, we returned the next day to count our catch and then promptly release everyone.

hardheaded catfish

the hardhead catfish was the most abundant species trapped during this survey

Although we caught a couple of interesting things (e.g., adult stone crabs, mullet, spot, as well as juvenile pinfish, pigfish and silver perch), I was surprised by the low abundance and diversity of our catch and that the most abundant species was catfish!

But after running out of fresh water to drink and profusely perspiring all the moisture out of my body while out on the reefs, it dawned on me that nature of this catch is likely an interesting seasonal pattern (again, I’m new here!): only hardy organisms that can tolerate really hot and low oxygen waters are going to be on Florida reefs right now. Once the rest of this research team begins collecting similar data from Virginia to Florida, it will be interesting to see if these low abundance-diversity patterns might last longer in some areas (e.g., Florida with longer summer) than in others (e.g., NC with shorter summer). If that’s the case, then the cascading effects of higher order predators (things at the top of our food web) down to oysters and their water filtration services may be occur more consistently during the summer in northern than in southern estuaries.

Hmmm…..good thing we are conducting a relatively long-term study and will consistently repeat this sampling in the future to rigorously detect interesting patterns like this one.

Until next time…

The Music in the video was by Jim Crozier.  As always, we welcome submissions from local musicians. WFSU’s kayak was provided by Wilderness Way.

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

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Photography feature: Beth Switzer

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150The Panhandle has been my home for most of my life and the older I get, the more fun I have looking at – and photographing – it in  an “up close and personal” manner.

There is great fun in “really seeing” something for the first time and being surprised by just how beautiful it is.

-Beth Switzer

The slideshow above was photographed by Beth at Alligator Point, not too far from where David Kimbro is studying oyster reefs, and many of the photos are of salt marshes, such as those studied by Randall Hughes.  So I knew when I saw them that they would be a great fit for this site.

You may know Beth Switzer as Executive Director and on camera personality at The Florida Channel, and before that on WFSU-TV.  I was surprised, after years of watching and occasionally working with her, to discover that she liked to photograph nature.  What’s not surprising is that she has forged a connection with the natural splendor of our area.  Those of us working in broadcasting in the panhandle end up seeing a lot of the area, and meeting a lot of the people.  It’s impossible to work in TV here and not love it here.

We’re two months into “In the Grass, On the Reef,” and so far the winds have been kind to Randall and David’s sites in St. Joseph Bay an Alligator Harbor.  When Deepwater Horizon exploded, we stepped up production on the project thinking that oil would arrive at any moment, and that we should get as much footage as we could before it hit.  Now, the more I go to these places, the less I think about oil while I’m there.  I hear about it on the radio as I’m driving to and from the shoots, but then I’m walking in water, planting my tripod in mud to get a steady shot of a periwinkle climbing a blade of cordgrass, or trying to see through my lens a stone crab that looks only slightly different than the oysters surrounding it.  In those moments, it just doesn’t feel like it will happen.  I know it will most likely happen, but it never feels like it will.

One of the pleasant developments of doing this has been having artist features like the one above.  So far we have had photographers and musicians, and we are talking to some writers as well.  We want to hear from artists in any medium who depict or are inspired by the coastal habitats of the Forgotten Coast.  Photographers, painters, musicians, writers:  share your art with us!  You can e-mail us at outloud@wfsu.org.

And, as always, comments and questions are welcome.

Can plant species diversity provide protection against oil?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Watch Dr. Hughes’ species diversity experiment.  The results could help determine how best to restore marshes affected by oil.

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150With oil arriving on FL beaches, the race is on. We’ll be out in our sites this week collecting more data. We want to be sure that we know as much as possible about:

(1) the condition of our sites before oil arrives;

(2) the amount and specific location of any oil that does reach our sites; and

(3) the response of the marsh plants and animals to this oil.

We expect that there will be considerable variability in the degree and extent of damage to our sites, both because oil exposure will likely be patchy (at least at first), and because marshes are likely to differ in their ability to either withstand or recover from oil. And this variation in marsh response provides a prime opportunity for us to learn more about the specific marsh characteristics that either hinder or promote recovery, information that could be valuable in the aftermath of this disaster.

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"marsh 2," location of the species diversity experiment

One aspect of marshes that may aid in the response to oil is plant species diversity. A substantial number of scientific studies in the ocean and on land illustrate that having more species in an area can reduce the impacts of disturbance. For example, research by David Tilman and colleagues shows that drought impacts are less severe in Minnesota grasslands with more plant species. A number of different processes can contribute to these positive effects of diversity, but they generally result from the fact that individual species typically differ in their life history (the timing of growth, reproduction, etc.) and in their response to specific disturbances. Thus, if you have more species, you’re more likely to contain one or two that are able to withstand disturbance as it occurs, or that are able to re-grow quickly following the disturbance.

So, back to salt marshes and oil. We know from previous studies that different marsh plants have different tolerances for oil (1,2). Because the chances of a more tolerant plant species being present are greater when there are more plant species around, it seems possible that marsh plant diversity could reduce the negative impacts of oil exposure. We’ll get some idea of whether or not this is the case from our surveys of natural marshes – we know the plant species diversity before oil gets there, and we’ll be able to record the impacts to the marsh once oil arrives to see if the negative effects are reduced in areas with more species. But to get the “real” story (i.e., a story not complicated by characteristics other than plant species diversity that vary from marsh to marsh), we need to do an experiment.

Recently, we did just that – we set up an experiment to test whether marshes (“plots”) with more species (3) are less impacted by oil than marshes with few species (1). 3 species may not seem particularly diverse, but it’s on par with what we find in natural marshes. There’s a chance that our experimental site won’t get any oil, which quite honestly will be fine by me. (In that case, we’ll simply look at how marsh productivity and growth differ due to marsh plant species diversity.) But, if it does, we’ll be positioned to examine how marsh plant species diversity affects the response to oil contamination.

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

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