Tag Archives: habitat provision

Randall snorkels in a seagrass bed in Saint Joseph Bay Peninsula State Park. Photo by Dr. Peter Macreadie. Peter is a researcher from the University of Technology, Sydney, who is visiting Randall and David.

What Have Seagrasses Done For Me Lately?

Episode 6: Blue Carbon Where the Stingray Meets the Horse Conch

At the beginning of September, Randall and David had a visit from Dr. Peter Macreadie of the University of Technology, Sydney.  In this video, Randall takes Dr. Macreadie for a snorkel in St. Joseph Bay.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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We now focus our attention to seagrasses, which as it turns out, often don’t get a lot of attention, at least in comparison to other marine habitats like coral reefs or even salt marshes.

Randall snorkels in a seagrass bed in Saint Joseph Bay Peninsula State Park. Photo by Dr. Peter Macreadie. Peter is a researcher from the University of Technology, Sydney, who is visiting Randall and David.

In part, this lack of attention is due to the fact that seagrasses typically live completely underwater, except at very low tide, and so they are not as noticeable as marshes are. In addition, seagrasses often occur in shallow estuaries not known for their great visibility (and thus not as ideal a location as coral reefs for snorkelers or scuba divers). And, although I disagree, some people just don’t find them very pretty.

Last week as I was starting to think about this post, there was a small uptick in the number of media articles related to seagrasses, at least in Australia. The increased interest was in response to a proposal by the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, to require greater seagrass protection from mining and development projects (read more in this article from the Brisbane Times). As justification for the increased financial burden on companies, Mr. Burke cited the many benefits that seagrasses provide. And just what are those?

Scallop in St. Joseph BaySeagrasses (like salt marshes and oyster reefs) provide habitat for many, many fishes and invertebrates. Studies have found that the number of animals living in seagrasses beds can be an order of magnitude higher than the number living in adjacent coastal habitats. Many of these animals rely on the seagrass beds as a “nursery” that protects them from predators until they grow larger. And lots are recreationally and commercially important species that we like to eat. (Scallops, anyone?)

Seagrasses are also incredibly productive plants, sometimes growing more than 1cm per day, and rivaling our most productive crop species like corn. Because a significant portion of this plant material (particularly the roots and rhizomes below ground) stays in place once the plants die, seagrasses can also serve as important ‘carbon sinks’, or buried reservoirs of carbon. In fact, a recent study estimates that the carbon stored in the sediments of seagrass beds is on par with that stored in the sediments of forests on land!

Although lots of the productivity of seagrass beds makes its way underground, some of it does get eaten. Major consumers of seagrasses include urchins and fishes, as well as the more charismatic dugongs, manatees, and sea turtles.

Spider Crab in St. Joe BaySeagrasses (like salt marshes) also play an important role in reducing nutrients that run off from land into the water. Unfortunately, these nutrients can also lead to the loss of seagrasses, by promoting increased growth of algal “epiphytes” that grow on the blades of the seagrasses themselves. When there are not enough small fishes and invertebrates around to eat these algae, they can overgrow and outcompete the seagrass, leading to its decline. And when the seagrasses become less abundant, the animals that rely on them are also often in danger.

The Big Bend and Panhandle of Florida are home to expansive seagrass beds that also often go unnoticed. But they contribute to the productivity, diversity, and beauty of this area in many ways, as anyone who has been scalloping recently has surely realized!

Here is a quick guide to the animals featured in the video above:
0:40 Horse conch and sea urchin joined suddenly by a stingray
1:41 Juvenile pinfish
1:18 Two shots of a bay scallop
1:33 Sea urchin
1:49 Pen shell clam covered in sea stars (2 shots)
1:56 Horse conch

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

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Four Ways (and more) That Salt Marshes Earn Their Keep

Episode 5: The True Value of a Salt Marsh

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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Much like David finds it hard to distill why the oysters that he studies are so intriguing, I often struggle to convey the charisma of the salt marshes and seagrass beds where I spend so much of my time. At least people like to eat oysters! It can be harder for people to find a connection with the plants that form so many of the critical habitats along our coast (unless of course people misunderstand the meaning of “In the Grass” and think I study a VERY different type of plant!). But even if it is not recognized, there is a connection between the salt marsh and our everyday lives. Like oyster reefs, salt marshes provide many benefits to society, particularly along the coast:

1. A place to live (for marine and terrestrial animals)

Periwinkle snails are among the many animals that make use of the salt marsh habitat.

Even if you’re one of those folks who find it hard to get excited about a bunch of plants, don’t tune out – the salt marsh is teeming with animals! Snails, fiddler crabs, mussels, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and snakes (!) are all critters that we encounter regularly when the tide is out. And there’s always a bit of an adrenaline rush when you see an alligator hauled out nearby. Even better, when the tide comes in, there are lots of animals that you and I (or at least, I) like to eat. Think blue crabs, mullet, and sea trout, for starters. Studies in Florida estimate that marshes provide up to nearly $7000 per acre for recreational fishing alone. Not bad.

2. A safer place to live (for people)

Although it’s generally frowned upon to build houses in the marsh (since it makes it hard for all those animals I just mentioned to live there), it’s a great idea to have lots of healthy marshes near your coastal property. Marshes can protect the coastline from waves and storms, leading to less damage in areas with marshes present. One estimate places the dollar value of coastal protection in the U.S. at over $8000 per hectare per year in reduced hurricane damages! Although here’s hoping that we don’t get an opportunity to test that particular benefit this year.

In addition to reducing the size and strength of waves, marshes also prevent coastal erosion. An unfortunate example of the role of marshes in erosion control came following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – plants in areas of the marsh that were heavily oiled died, leading to greatly increased rates of erosion in those areas (Silliman et al. 2012). Although the benefit of marshes for reducing erosion and combating sea level rise has been recognized for a long time, there are not any good estimates for what this erosion control is worth in $$. Given expectations of sea level rise in the coming years, I think that the motivation to understand the conditions that lead to sediment accumulation in marshes will only get stronger.

3. Clean water (for animals and people)

Because marshes lie at the intersection of the land and the sea, they serve as a filter for things trying to move between the two. When it comes to run-off and pollution from the land, it’s a very good thing that they do. Simply having a marsh present can serve as an effective alternative to traditional waste treatment. Of course, the protection can go the other direction too – marshes played a critical role in keeping oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from getting to higher elevations.

4. A place to graze (for livestock)

Support for livestock grazing is an important role of marshes in some areas, including the U.K. Although it’s not a benefit commonly associated with marshes in this area, the decaying fence posts that extend out into some areas of St. Joe Bay suggest that it wasn’t too long ago that marshes were used for a similar purpose here!

I could go on, but these and other benefits of marshes are described in greater detail in a recent review by Barbier and colleagues (which I referenced on this blog in May of 2011). Here is the table that they put together summarizing the monetary benefits that we derive from intact salt marshes:

Luckily for us, salt marshes keep working their magic even in the absence of accolades or appreciation. But greater appreciation is needed to help curb the decline of salt marshes around the world – estimated to be as much as 2% per year! We hope that this blog will help generate greater understanding and enthusiasm for the incredible coastal habitats that we are lucky enough to work in every day. Let us know how we’re doing!

In the next two weeks, we delve into a habitat that we have only occasionally covered: seagrass beds.  Next week we examine, with visiting researcher Dr. Peter MacReadie, seagrass beds’ role in fighting global climate change.  The week after that, we head to Bay Mouth Bar, one of the most ecologically unique places in the world.  Also, we’ll be look at the failure of the Apachicola Bay oyster reefs from a biological perspective.  Here are a few images of our visit to a Saint Joseph Bay seagrass bed and of Bay Mouth Bar at low tide, when you see all kinds of strange and interesting creatures:

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

Music in the piece by Kokenovem and Pitx
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Shells, Buried History, and the Apalachee Coastal Connection

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150IGOR chip- habitat 150Have you ever found oyster shells in the dirt of your backyard?  If you have and you live in Tallahassee’s Myers Park neighborhood, then you might be looking at the remains of a powerful native village that rose to prominence over 500 years ago.

Missions San Luis scallop-oysterI was on a shoot for the first episode of our newest program, Florida Footprints. We were at the Florida Museum of History interviewing KC Smith about her involvement in the excavation of the Hernando de Soto winter encampment in 1987.  Back then the city was abuzz about the artifacts being found so widely dispersed off of the appropriately  named Apalachee Parkway.  They had likely discovered the central Apalachee village of Anhaica, where de Soto spent the first winter of his North American expedition.  People were finding piles of artifacts in their backyards.  After the interview, I asked Smith how deep I’d have to dig to see if I had artifacts in my yard.

“Do you have oyster shells in your yard?”  she asked.

Oyster shells?  Evidently, these were the indicator of an Apalachee site.  No one is sure what the shells were used for, though she believes they were used as small dishes.  This is consistent with the interpretation in the photo above, taken at Mission San Luis, of scallop shells storing food stuffs.  As Dr. Bonnie McEwan, Director of Archeology at the Mission, points out, “… Apalachees undoubtedly harvested and ate a lot of oysters when they were near the coast.  But because there was no way to preserve them, they didn’t carry them.”  So they weren’t eating oysters in Anhaica, so far from the coast, they were just bringing the shells back.  Of all the shells they carried with them from Apalachee Bay, the most valuable belonged to a resident of the oyster reef, and to all of the intertidal habitats we follow: The lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium).

whelk-black drink vesselMuch like our coastal shellfish are economically important today, lightning whelk shells were of particular value for the Apalachee.  This had less to do with their meat than it did the size and shape of their shell.  Whelks are predatory snails that get quite large, with an elegant sinistral (left hand) curve.  I imagine that it’s the impressive appearance of a mature Busycon that led to their use in ritual life.  “The outer shells with the columellae removed were used as dippers or cups,” Dr. McEwan said, “and these were used in Black Drink ceremonies. As we discussed, Black Drink was an emetic tea brewed from yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves.”  Anyone familiar with the effects of holly knows where the vomitoria species name comes from.  The regurgitation caused by the Black Drink was a form of ritual purification, and was a central component of the ceremonies held in preparation for the fierce and occasionally deadly Apalachee ball game (the ball game is the focus of my segment in Florida Footprints).  In the second photo to the right, you can see an interpretation of what a decorated Black Drink vessel looked like.

And whelks had value far outside of our area.  The Apalachee were part of the Mississippian culture, and with it part of a trade network that stretched to the Great Lakes.  Whelks with chemical signatures identifying them as from the Gulf have been found in Arkansas and Illinois.  “In exchange for the shells,” Dr. McEwan said, “the Apalachees received artifacts made from ‘exotic’ or non-local materials such as copper, lead, mica, and steatite, all of which were found associated with burials at the Apalachees’ Mississippian capital– Lake Jackson.”  Lake Jackson was capital of the Apalachee until about 1500.  Judging by the materials for which they were traded, whelks were highly valued.  Dr. McEwan elaborates on this. “In general, most of these items are found in association with burials of high status individuals throughout the Mississippian world since they conferred prestige.”

Here is a video of a lightning whelk roaming nearby St. Joseph Bay:

Since we’ve started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, one of the things that has interested me most is how the many cultures of this area, spanning thousands of years, have connected with the Gulf.  I’ve enjoyed the illumination I’ve received on this little sidebar to the segment I produced.  The next few episodes of Florida Footprints will move forward in time to cover our history since the Spanish arrived.  Hopefully, we will later also look in the other direction at the people who left oyster middens on St. Vincent Island or to the Aucilla River, where the remains of the first Floridians and the mastodons they hunted continue to be found.

My co-producers on this episode are Mike Plummer and Suzanne Smith.  Suzanne is covering the de Soto excavation and the discovery of Anhaica.  Mike is looking at the Spanish mission period in our area.

Watch a preview of Florida Footprints: Once Upon Anhaica:

Why We Burn- Restoring the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
The longleaf pine/ wiregrass ecosystem was historically common in the coastal plain (low lying flat areas adjacent to the coast) of the Southeast United States.  According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, this ecosystem has seen a 97% decline.  In our recent excursion along the Apalachicola River, we visited this habitat and learned about efforts to restore it.

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There’s a certain terminology we use when we talk about the wild places of the world. We use words like “pristine,” or “untouched.”  When you hike through a forest along the Florida Trail, there are times where you can imagine that you are the first person ever to walk under the trees that you see.  Of course, much of the time, not only are you not the first person to have seen the trees, the trees look the way they do due to someone’s careful manipulation.  The practice of land management and why it is used can change the way you think about what is “wild.”

Prescribed burn. Courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The video above is about how the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is using prescribed burning in its restoration of longleaf pine habitats.  Longleaf pine had historically thrived because they have the evolutionary advantage of a thick, fireproof bark in what are known as Fire Climax Communities.  This is a habitat in which fire (typically started by lightning strikes) is the primary controlling factor, and so lesser equipped competitors to longleaf pine are eliminated.  This natural process makes for an ecosystem dominated by the thick barked pines.  So why are humans assuming a role usually played by nature?

That goes back to our conception of what is “wild.”  That forest you hike through looks untouched, like I said earlier, but human influence reaches even into its deepest reaches.  For one, we have roads cutting across the forests, and while there are often large expanses of unbroken forest, paved roads keep fire from spreading as far as it once might have.  Another factor is that there is human settlement all around the forest, and uncontrolled fire is a threat to life and property.

Courtesy of the Florida Archive.

Prescribed fire is one tool in the toolset for restoring the longleaf/ wiregrass system.  This was the dominant habitat of the southeast, characterized by a wide spacing of trees (wide enough to ride a wagon through, FWC’s Liz Sparks tells me) that allows for a diversity of ground cover plants.  These cover plants, as Matt points out in the video above, are attractive to the many species that thrive in a longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem. Ironically, this ecosystem has been drastically reduced as a result of another type of land management- silviculture. As you’ll see in the video above, timber operations replaced longleaf  for slash pine, a faster growing variety of pine with a lesser quality wood but that is far more profitable to grow. The slash pine grew closer together, eliminating the ground cover that is so important to the many birds, reptiles, and amphibians that make the longleaf/ wiregrass system so diverse. That’s why FWC does timber thinning before the burns.

Marsh burn. Courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And since this is In the Grass, On the Reef, I did want to mention something I left out of the video, which is marsh burns.  Every 4-6 years, they burn the sawgrass in the freshwater marshes on the Apalachicola River system.  This clears the plants out and allows for new growth; the less dense grass provides nesting cover for many birds.  Wintering waterfowl like canvasback, scaup, and redhead eat submerged vegetation called widgeon grass; periodic burns increase access to this for birds.  As with longleaf ecosystems, fire was a naturally occurring, controlling factor.  The systems evolved with the plants and animals that could best take advantage of these fire events.  Nature may not be able to provide fire to these systems as effectively as it once had; luckily, mankind has flame throwers and ping pong balls full of potassium permanganate.

For more information about these and other Florida Fish and Wildlife land management initiatives, visit their web site.

Watch our latest EcoAdventure, where we visit a lot of this managed land around the Apalachicola River on WFSU’s dimensions- Sunday, February 19 at 10:00 AM/ ET.

Video: Kayaking and Canoeing the Wacissa with the Green Guides

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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When the video above aired on dimensions, several individuals in our community took note of a statement made by George Weymouth.  He was explaining how hydrilla, an invasive plant species overtaking rivers in our state, had led to Limpkins entirely abandoning the Wakulla River (which has its source at Wakulla Springs).  He said that herbicides used to control the plant led to a die off of apple snails, the limpkin’s main food source.

The reaction to this statement started me on a quest, with the several aforementioned individuals guiding me closer, and at times seemingly further, from an answer to what happened to the limpkins at Wakulla Springs.

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