Tag Archives: forgotten coast

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.

Kayaking, anyone?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Here’s a vacation idea for you.

If you had the time, didn’t mind camping for months on end, and were physically up to paddling fifteen hundred miles, you could paddle around the entire state of Florida using trails mapped out by Doug Alderson.  He coordinates the Florida Circumnavigational Paddling Trail for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Visit the trail’s web site).  You would pass by major urban centers like Tampa and Miami.  You would make your way through the entirety of the Florida keys.  And you would see a lot of amazing coastal habitats.

Ready to go?

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The Forgotten Coast segment of the trail starts in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

I’m guessing the vast majority of people reading this are saying no, though we would certainly want to hear from you if you were doing this.  Luckily, the trail breaks down into twenty six segments, and over one hundred individual day trips.  The one I’m interested in is Segment 4: The Forgotten Coast.  It takes you through some of my favorite places.  St. Joseph Bay has clear water and lively seagrass beds and salt marshes.  Many of St. Vincent Island’s most interesting animals aren’t aquatic, but if you look over as you paddle past you might see wild hogs running or even one of those elusive red wolves (not likely, but it doesn’t hurt to look).  Once you pass there, you could choose to either go along St. George Island or stick to the mainland and pass by Apalachicola, where you can try to find a place to land your kayak while you pick up some oysters.

We’ll be kayaking part of this trail for September 14 episode, and talking to Mr. Alderson about it.  Have any of you done this?  Are any of you attempting this, or any section of it, any time in the next month?  We want to know.  We want to see your photos.  We want to watch your videos. Leave a comment below, with links to any videos or photos if you like.  If you’ll be out that way in the next couple of weeks, we may want to interview you.

Leave your comments!

And we want to keep hearing from you.  If you have any ideas for stories we might do related to coastal ecotourism, leave a comment on our Ecotourism North Florida page.

 

Are two friends better than one?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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Sand fiddler crab.

This summer we’ve been conducting an experiment on our new deck to look at the effects of fiddler crabs and ribbed mussels on Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass).

Past studies by Dr. Mark Bertness have shown that crabs and mussels by themselves can have positive effects on plant growth – most likely because crabs can reduce the stress of low oxygen in the sediments by building their burrows, and mussels can add nutrients to the sediments.

Fig. 3 from Bertness 1984, Ecology 65: 1794-1807

Figure 3 from Mark Bertness's 1984 Ecology study illustrating the positive effects of mussel presence (white bars) on Spartina

Table 3 from Bertness 1985, Ecology 66: 1042-1055

Table 3 from Mark Bertness's 1985 Ecology study. Fiddler removal has a negative effect on Spartina in the marsh flat, but not the marsh edge.

Although both fiddlers and mussels occur together in the field, no studies have looked at how the combination affects the plants. Are the positive effects of each species by itself doubled? Or are they redundant with each other? Do crabs somehow reduce the positive effect of mussels, or vice-versa? How many crabs or mussels do you need to get a positive effect on Spartina? These are some of the questions that we hope to answer with our experiment.

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Our new deck at FSUCML.

But first, we had to get everything set up. There were several long and hot days of shoveling sand into our “mesocosms” (10 gallon buckets) – many thanks to Robyn, Chris, Althea, and all the others who took care of that task! Then there was another day spent transplanting the Spartina.

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Chris, Randall, and Robyn work to transplant Spartina from the greenhouse to the mesocosms.

Finally, it was time to add the fiddlers and mussels, and everything began!

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Mussels nestled among the Spartina stems in one of our experimental mesocosms

Althea and Chris have been leading the charge on this experiment, and they’ve spent a lot of time getting to know (and identify) the fiddler crabs. All in all, a pretty fun study organism!

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Althea working to identify fiddler crab species.

We’ll continue the experiment another month and then measure the height and density of the plants in each treatment to see if there are any differences. Once this experiment is complete, we’ll set up a separate one asking somewhat of the converse question – are two enemies (periwinkle snails and grasshoppers) worse than one? We’ll keep you posted.

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

The End of an Era

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
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Randall examines an experiment cage as Robyn looks on.

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Calling a one year experiment an “era” is probably a bit of an over-statement, but the end of our snail field experiment definitely feels significant. Especially for Robyn, who has traveled to St. Joe Bay at least once a week for the past year to count snails and take other data. And also for the Webbs, who were kind enough to let us put cages up in the marsh right in front of their house and then proceed to show up to check on them at odd hours for the last year!  And finally for this blog, because the beginning of the snail experiment was the first thing we documented last summer when we started this project with WFSU.  It’s nice to come full circle.

So why, you may wonder, are we ending things now? Is it simply because one year is a nice round number? Not really, though there is some satisfaction in that. The actual reasons include:

(1) The experiment has now run long enough that if snails were going to have an effect on cordgrass, we should have seen it by now. (At least based on prior studies with these same species in GA.)
(2) In fact, we have seen an effect of periwinkle snails, and in some cages there are very few plants left alive for us to count! (And lots of zeros are generally not good when it comes to data analysis.)
(3) Perhaps the most important reason to end things now:  it’s become increasingly difficult in some cages to differentiate the cordgrass that we transplanted from the cordgrass that is growing there naturally. Being able to tell them apart is critical in order for our data to be accurate.
(4) The results of the experiment have been consistent over the last several months, which increases my confidence that they are “real” and not simply some fluke of timing or season.

And what are the results? As I mentioned above, snails can have a really dramatic effect on cordgrass, most noticeably when our experimental transplant is the only game in town (i.e., all the neighboring plants have been removed). And not surprisingly, cordgrass does just fine in the absence of snails and neighbors – they’re not competing with anyone or being eaten!

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Snails also have a pretty strong effect on the experimental cordgrass transplant (compared to when no snails are present) when all of its neighbors are cordgrass.

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Most interestingly, snails do not have a big effect on the experimental cordgrass transplant when some of the neighboring plants are needlerush.

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This result is consistent with some of the patterns we’ve observed in natural marshes, where cordgrass growing with needlerush neighbors is taller and looks “healthier” than nearby cordgrass growing without needlerush.

Having decimated the plants in the cage, the snails move towards the tallest structure they can reach- a PVC pipe.

But why? Those snails are pretty smart. They generally prefer to climb on the tallest plant around, because it gives them a better refuge at high tide when their predators move into the marsh. (We’ve shown this refuge effect in the lab – fewer snails get eaten by blue crabs  in tanks with some tall plants  than in tanks with all short plants.) Needlerush is almost always taller than cordgrass in the marshes around here, so this preference for tall plants means that snails spend less time on cordgrass when needlerush is around. And finally, less time on cordgrass means less time grazing on cordgrass, so the cordgrass growing with needlerush experiences less grazing pressure.

These results – consumer (snail) effects on cordgrass are lower when cordgrass grows mixed with needlerush – are consistent with theory on the effect of diversity, even though in this case we’re only talking about a “diversity” of 2 plant species.  And they could be important in the recovery or restoration of marsh areas where snails are causing a large reduction in cordgrass biomass.

The one thing we still don’t know with certainty – how do the snails determine which plant is taller??

I guess that’s the beauty of this job, in that there are always more questions to answer.

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

The new documentary, In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear had a segment on the snail experiment.  Watch the full program here.  You can also read Randall’s post from the beginning of the experiment, and watch a video, here.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

Horse Conchs Rule the Seagrass Bed

In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear

Premieres on WFSU-TV Wednesday, June 29 at 7:30 PM, 6:30 CT.  In high definition where available.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR_chip_predators_NCE_100This clip is a short segment on one of the predators featured in this program: the horse conch.  It’s practically an ecosystem onto itself, as you can see in the video’s poster frame above.  Barnacles, crepidula, bryozoans, and other marine creatures that affix themselves to hard surfaces settle on its shell.  In the video you’ll see its bright orange body as it roams the seagrass beds of the Forgotten Coast.  And you’ll see it eat another large predatory snail, the lightning whelk.

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