A sure sign of spring for me is an increase in time in the field. (Robyn and Emily would probably disagree with me, since they have been out in the field regularly throughout the winter!) I have been in the lab or office since December, which feels like a long time, and I’m really looking forward to getting back in the field. I find it is so much easier to come up with new research questions and develop insights into what the animals and plants are doing out there when I’m actually there with them. I guess that makes sense!
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!
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
The end of summer is a good time to pause and think about any general patterns that emerge from observations over the course of the last year(s). Sometimes it is easy to get swept up in the minutiae of individual projects and forget about the big picture. Of course, these patterns aren’t definitive (i.e., don’t quote me on this!), but they can be useful to think about, particularly when considering future avenues of research.
Marsh island in St. Joe Bay viewed from the waterand marshes on the edge of the mainland.
So what sort of patterns can I describe to you after two summers in the marshes of St. Joe Bay? One that doesn’t take a PhD to recognize is that there are two distinct types of marshes that we sample: marsh islands and marshes on the edge of the mainland.
But aside from the obvious fact that one is an island and the other is not, there are some additional interesting differences:
1. The slope of marsh islands is typically greater than mainland marshes, so that you move quickly from plants that can tolerate frequent flooding (cordgrass) to plants that are more “terrestrial” (pickleweed, saltwort, etc.). On islands this transition can occur within a few steps of the water’s edge, whereas mainland marshes typically have a large area (I like to think of it as a football field) dominated by cordgrass.
Elevation on islands changes rapidly compared to the mainland. Even slight differences in height can influence plant communities.
Sampling a mainland marsh in St. Joe Bay.
2. Marsh islands tend to have fewer periwinkle snails than mainland sites, although they are certainly present.
Abundant snails in a mainland marsh.
My guess is that the snail predators (blue crabs, crown conchs) that lurk just at the water’s edge have greater access to snails on the islands at high tide, because they can move in from all sides of the island. In contrast, the predators near mainland sites have only one point of entry into the marsh.
Blue crab lurking in the seagrass at the edge of the marsh during low tide.
Crown conch foraging for snails in a lab experiment.
3. Perhaps not surprisingly given that they are surrounded by water, the marsh islands typically have fewer grasshoppers jumping around. We’ve also had far fewer snake encounters on islands, which I consider a good thing. Probably because land-based predators such as snakes, raccoons, etc., are less frequent on islands, we also observe greater numbers of nesting birds on the islands than at mainland sites.
4. One clear difference that I can’t explain but hope to examine in the future is that cordgrass plants collected from the islands (which can only be done with a special permit from the Department of Environmental Protection) survive better in our greenhouse at the lab than those from mainlands. It may simply be the growing conditions, or island plants may be hardier overall. Stay tuned.
As we continue to process, enter, and analyze data, there should be additional trends emerging. And we’ll likely find out that some of the patterns we think we see don’t hold up to the test of actual data. And so goes the process of science!
Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Last week we had a post on what it was like on an oyster reef, the idea being that many people have never really seen one. Continuing with that theme, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look into a salt marsh. This is a trickier proposition because, well, what is a typical salt marsh? Some of them grow in muddy waters next to oyster reefs, or they can be found along beaches, in wide expanses or in small islands just off the coast. I’ll keep today’s imaginary journey confined to marshes in St. Joseph Bay, where Randall Hughes conducts her biodiversity study- that is what I am most familiar with.
One of the really interesting aspects of the marsh community is that it is a mix of sea-based and land-based critters. At low tide, insects and rodents move in, whereas at high tide, snails, fish, and crabs dominate. The 2 most common plant grazers at our sites illustrate this dichotomy :
and the other is a sea-based snail (Littoraria irrorata).
In addition to being very abundant in our sites, the grasshoppers and snails leave distinctive grazing marks that alert us to their activity. Grasshoppers tend to chew large pieces out of the margin of the leaves, often resulting in the removal of large portions of the upper leaves. Snails, on the other hand, create razor-blade like incisions in the middle of the leaf:
spartina with grasshopper grazing damage
periwinkle grazing scars on spartina
We are interested in the potential for interactions between these 2 consumers, because they occur together in abundance at several of our sites. A preliminary experiment last summer suggested that snails somehow deter grasshopper feeding, even though neither animal can directly harm the other. (In fact, as you can see from the video, sometimes the grasshoppers even hang out on the snails’ backs!) However, it is possible that snails leave a “slime” trail that the grasshoppers don’t like, or perhaps snail grazing causes the plants to produce chemicals that make it less likely that grasshoppers will eat them.
To find out more, we are repeating the same experiment (with some minor modifications) to look more closely at how much snails and grasshoppers eat when they are alone versus how much they eat when they are together. Because it is difficult to make grasshoppers stay where you want them, we are doing the experiment in mesh cages inside “mesocosms” (science-speak for large buckets) at the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.
The mesocosms are set up to mimic the natural tidal cycle, with both high and low tides on a regular basis. We measured the height and number of stems of all the plants in each mesocosm at the start of the experiment, and we’ll take these same data at the end of a couple of weeks to see which species has the largest effect, and whether their combined effects are different from what we expect based on what they eat alone.
As an aside, this experiment is a good example of one of my ecologist’s rules of thumb: you can never do an experiment just once. There are certainly exceptions to this rule. (For example, when you have lots of experience with the animals you are experimenting with, when the experiment is just too large to repeat, or when the experiment relies on something you can’t manipulate, such as an oil spill.) However, I find that it generally takes one go-around to work out the kinks, figure out the relevant time frame, and discover unanticipated results. Then I can be much more confident the second time around that the patterns I am seeing are real!
The music in the piece was by Ric Edmiston. We are always looking for local musicians to score our videos. If you are interested and already have some music recorded, we would love your submission.
Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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