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Split the Difference: Applied vs. Basic Science

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Looking over the catch

Shannon Hartsfield and Colonel Donald Jackson of the Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division look over their catch during an oystering demonstration at Cat Point Bar. This demonstration was meant to show the problems caused by low fresh water input into the bay. Below, David talks about starting to work towards a possible solution.

Tonight on WFSU-TV’s Dimensions program, watch Part 2 of RiverTrek 2012.  Tune in at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV. In case you missed it, you can watch Part 1 of RiverTrek 2012 here

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Spread offense or Power-I formation? Man-to-Man or Zone defense? Austerity or Stimulus spending? And most importantly, Batman or Batgirl?

Whether leading a team of athletes or a population of countrymen, deciders frequently confront such either-or decisions or binary outcomes (i.e., yes or no).

Because time is one of our most limiting resources, natural scientists confront such a dilemma right out of the gate: should I pursue Applied or Basic scientific research?

By applied, I mean research that focuses on immediate solutions to societal problems: How can we deal with a new infectious disease (e.g., avian flu)? Where did the BP oil go?

By basic, I mean research that focuses on improving our knowledge about the nuances of the natural world: How many galaxies are there in the observable universe and how were they formed (I just saw a must-see iMax movie, Hubble 3D, at the JFK Space Center Visitor Complex)? Why is biodiversity so much greater in the tropics?

Flashing back to my childhood hero, I realize that Michael Jordan will likely remain the best basketball player to ever play not solely because of his offense (which was certainly top tier), but also because he worked relentlessly to become a top-tier defender as well. Obviously, few people can master both sides of a spectrum, and sometimes a focus on both or on splitting the difference can come with great cost. For example, my favorite college football team (UNC) is implementing a hybrid defense (i.e., a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3 or a 3-4) this year; we LOST 68-50 this last Saturday…in FOOTBALL!

Because my plans for playing in the NBA and NFL obviously aren’t working out, let’s get back to science and the merits of focusing on both ends of the science spectrum.

Recently, I talked about this topic with a leading research and clinical Psychologist at Florida State University, Dr. Thomas Joiner. Ignorantly, I thought FSU was only great in Football…turns out that they also have the best Psychology department in the nation. In a recent book Lonely at the Top, Dr. Joiner weaved together many interesting and Basic research studies to show how gender and evolutionary forces cause nuanced interactions all the way from neurons and one’s health to one’s social behavior. It was fascinating to learn how these interactions can promote the loneliness that facilitates suicides.

But while all of these powerful connections lined up well for the main argument of his book, I am equally interested by a conversation we recently shared together about there being many applied problems that can’t wait around for further testing of nuanced ideas. For instance, Dr. Joiner recently began working with the US military to study and reduce the causes of suicide within the military. As Dr. Joiner indicated, the military probably couldn’t give a darn about Basic research findings. They just want some realistic solutions and they want them yesterday.

If you stuck it out this far, you are probably wondering, “how does this relate to oysters, predators, etc.?” Well, the motivation of my Basic research is to increase our knowledge about how predators keep the lights on for many of the natural systems that we depend on like oyster reefs, salt marshes and seagrass beds. But in pursuing this research over the past three years, I have confronted a very important applied problem that needs immediate solutions: the oyster fishery of Apalachicola, Florida presently contains too few oysters to support the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here).

So, if you follow this blog, you’ll get to see whether my attempt to be like Mike (if you’ve seen my vertical leap, it’s obvious we’re talking research and not b-ball), to emulate the approach of Dr. Joiner, and to split the Applied–Basic difference is a success or a bust. I’ll be working with a lot of good researchers (Florida Sea Grant, UF Oyster Recovery Task Force), state organizations – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)- and the local community to examine the following:

David accompanies FDACS on a sampling trip in Apalachicola Bay as part of a new collaboration.

(1) How in the heck do you work in such a large and logistically challenging system?

(2) What is the extent of the problem…how far gone is the resource?

(3) After getting some research under our belts, what our some realistic options to this problem?

(4) Because we all want answers to these questions yesterday, can we explore the existing data, which was impressively collected by FDACS for the past 30 years, to get a head start?

Finally, I suspect that this Applied perspective may help inform the merits of my Basic interests. There are a ton of things that could be contributing to the failure of the oyster fishery such as climate change, drought, fresh-water extraction, over-harvesting, disease, nutrient inputs, and water quality. Whether or not any of our predator ideas help explain the lost of this fishery represents a very big test. In other words, relative to other explanations, is all of this predator stuff really important?

Ok, as the locals along the Forgotten Coast say “let’s get’er done”.

Best,
David

Take the RiverTrek 2012 photo tour down the Apalachicola River. You can zoom in and scroll across the map for greater detail. Later we’ll post a map with more of the basin and bay as well, from our other EcoAdventures in the area (River Styx, Graham Creek, etc.). Also, many of the locations are approximate. We did not geotag the location of every houseboat on the river, but the photos do show up in the same general vicinity (with the exception of more recognized landmarks such as Sand Mountain, Alum Bluff, etc.).

Related Links

For more information on the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, visit their web site.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input.  You can let your voice be heard here.

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

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

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

 

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The River, the Bay, and the Army Corps of Engineers

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Slideshow: Army Corps of Engineers visit Apalachicola Bay

Tonight on WFSU’s Dimensions: Part 1 of the RiverTrek 2012 Adventure.  Days one and two of paddling, camping, hiking and climbing air at 7:30 PM/ ET with an encore on Sunday, October 28 at 10 AM/ ET.  The trip concludes with Part 2 (Days 3-5) on Wednesday, November 14 at 7:30 PM/ET.

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The slideshow above was photographed on Monday, when Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited (along with state agency officials and media) to see firsthand how depleted the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have become.  We went out in three oyster boats, captained by the leadership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, to the Cat Point bar.  Cat Point is usually one of the most productive winter reefs in the bay.  In early September, the Summer reefs closer to the mouth of the river are closed and the Winter reefs further out are opened up.  The Winter reefs should have spent months replenishing and younger oysters should have matured into legal sized, commercially viable oysters.  Only this year, it didn’t happen.

Colonel Donald Jackson receives oystering tips from Shannon Hartsfield.

Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Association, takes a few licks with his oyster tongs and then hands the them to Colonel Donald Jackson.  Colonel Jackson takes a few licks; between the two of them they take about eight.  Hartsfield inspects their catch: about six legal oysters in a pile of dead shell. Later he tells me that in past years, that amount of work would have yielded about a 30 lb. bag of legal oysters.  This is what the Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited to see.  The Corps controls the flow of water in the Apalachicola/ Flint/ Chattahoochee basin, directing water into over 200 reservoirs and adjusting how much flows through dams.  The lack of water flowing from the Apalachicola River, due in large part to the drought we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, is the main cause of the fishery crisis.  The oystering demonstration is the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ argument for more water to be allowed through Woodruff Dam at the Florida/ Georgia border.

The wrangling over this water is often portrayed as between seafood workers in the bay and Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water consumers.  But the list of stakeholders also contains power companies (hydroelectric and nuclear), MillerCoors LLC, manufacturers, and recreational concerns, to name a few (see the full list here).  It’s messy.  And change doesn’t look like it’s coming soon.  As the colonels said during the community meeting later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they are soldiers following a protocol.  A new protocol (an update to the ACF Master Water Control Manual) is being drawn up, but changes will not take effect for 2-3 years, and in the meantime there isn’t a lot of leeway for how the water can be redirected, at least not by the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority (The U.S. Legislature grants them the authority they have). They are taking public input for the Manual Update, you can send your comments here.

This slide provided by Helen Light (©USGS) illustrates the floodplain supported by the river. As water levels have decreased over the last few decades, there has been a loss of 4 million trees in the floodplain and a loss of aquatic habitat.

During that meeting, presenters from different agencies, universities, and local concerns laid out the impact of the low water flow on the bay and on the river basin.  The next day, the colonels would be going up the river to see the effects of low flow there, where I had just paddled a week-and-a-half ago in the video that airs tonight.  My interest had been, as a main focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef project is oyster reef ecology, the bay and how the lack of river flow had affected it.  As Helen Light said to us on the first night of the trek “You all know a lot about the bay, and the impacts in the bay, you’ve been reading it in the paper.”  That night, gathered around her on the sand bar across from Alum Bluff, she proceeded to tell us about the effects on the river.  She had studied the floodplain for decades while working for the US Geological Survey, and has seen the changes undergone as river flow has decreased over the last few decades.  I keep going back to her talk in the video, much as we did in our conversations kayaking down the river.  Even as we were falling in love with the river (or reconnecting with it), we learned of its struggles and the troubles it was facing.

For all of the statistics on the decline of the river, it was still a beautiful paddle.  The fish were jumping, eagles soared overhead, turtles sat on logs- and as we reported, there were plenty of snakes.  We got off the river, too, to see some of the creeks, swamps, and forest around it.  For all its troubles, the river is still enjoyable, as are its products.  There has been a 44% decline in Ogeechee Tupelo trees along the river since 1976, but you can still buy tupelo honey produced from the trees in the river basin.  And at the reception after the community meeting on Monday, the same day I saw oystermen pull dead shell off the floor of the bay,  there were trays of healthy looking Apalachicola oysters on the half shell.  As tourists and consumers, it can be easy to dismiss the stats when our own eyes (and taste buds) tell us everything looks normal.

The making of an experiment

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

“Wow, quite the set-up! I am jealous of that space!

“…As a side question, how did you pump the cue water to all your tubs, a peristaltic pump? Was it just gravity? Seems like quite the complicated set-up.”

Excerpts from a comment on Randall’s September 28th post, Scared Hungry.  Read the whole comment here.

IGOR chip- employment 150This recent comment by John Carroll made me realize that there are a lot of unsung heroes at the lab that don’t typically get credit for the essential work that they do to facilitate our research. So here is a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at setting up an experiment:

1. The idea. This is the main part that I can take credit for, though even then an idea usually stems not simply from my brain, but from a paper I’ve read, a conversation with a colleague or student, or an observation in the field.

2. The infrastructure. Each experiment has its own specifics, but in my research there are generally 3 main requirements:

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The "small" deck, used by David and me for mesocosm experiments with snails, crabs, plants, oysters - you name it!

a. Space. FSUCML has numerous tanks and related facilities for use in research (Visit the Lab site here.). Of course, I often have specific needs or desires, and thus my first step is usually to speak to Mary Balthrop, our Associate Director, and then to Dennis Tinsley, our Facilities Manager. Both Mary and Dennis show a great deal of good humor in receiving my seemingly hair-brained requests (e.g., a deck that can hold 16 plastic kiddie pools full of sand and water!), and they work with me to find (or devise) a suitable space to get the job done. Our incredible carpenter, Dan Overlin, then has the task of modifying or creating that space.

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The newer "large" deck, obscuring the view of the small deck closer to the water's edge

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Another view of the small deck, with the large seawater tanks in the background. (Photo credit: Nancy Smith)

b. Seawater. Since we work with marine critters, access to seawater is critical. FSUCML pumps seawater from the bay in front of the lab into large holding tanks that feed the entire facility.

Mark Daniels and Bobby Henderson then create the plumbing system that gets that water where it needs to go. They know everything there is to know about PVC pipes, water filters, pumps – you name it! As I mentioned in my response to John, it was Bobby who came up with the incredible pump apparatus (and several subsequent revisions) that has enabled us to conduct several experiments examining the effects of predator cues on prey behavior.

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Robyn and Emily working to set up a recent experiment on the large deck. Although the plants love all the light, we decided to erect a tent as a refuge from the sun/heat.

c. Light. When working with plants, light is key. I’m fortunate to have access to a greenhouse, as well as abundant outdoor space at the lab to set up experiments. Or perhaps I should say once-abundant outdoor space, since David and my decks now cover a good chunk of it! Dennis is a pro at thinking of suitable and available spaces to squeeze in a few tanks.

Robyn and Emily releasing grasshoppers into one of our cages. (Photo credit: Nancy Smith)

3. The supplies. Once the infrastructure is in place, it’s time to buy the supplies needed to make each experimental unit. The job then falls to Kathy Houck and Maranda Marxsen to explain to the accountants at FSU why I purchased several large bolts of tulle fabric (grasshopper cages), or 24 pair of knee-high panty hose (they make great filters when filled with gravel), or lots and lots of nail polish (for marking snails). For field experiments, Sharon Thoman is helpful in arranging vehicles and boat reservations, sometimes at the very last minute!

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Robyn and Liz cheerfully using nail polish to mark snails

 

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A thundercloud looms in the distance. Once this summer we were stranded in a storm and Dan came to retrieve us.

4. Set-up. Once things start to come together, there are inevitable surprises the crop up. In our recent predator-prey experiments, we had issues with flow from the pump being greater than that from the regular seawater lines, which required some brain-storming from Bobby, David, Kelly, Meagan, and myself. Or, a plumbing line will clog, and I’ll run to find Mark.  Or, we’ll get stranded in a thunderstorm while collecting mud crabs and Dan will come pick us up.   At least we often provide fodder for funny stories!

5. The experiment. And at last, the actual experiment can begin. When I come up with particularly high-maintenance experiments, it’s useful to utilize the lab dorms for the night. Linda Messer is always understanding of last minute housing requests and changes, making sure the lights (and, more importantly, the A/C) are on! Sometimes, the experiment itself is much shorter than the time required to set it up – duration never seems to equate with complexity. But one of the benefits of consulting with the staff is to ensure that the same space can be used for multiple purposes. And the second experiment is always easier to set up than the first!

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

Summer Chaos and The Tower of Cards

Throughout this week, Dr. David Kimbro has been updating us about the premature dismantling of his lab’s summer experiment in preparation for Hurricane Irene.   Before this turn of events, David’s lab tech, Tanya Rogers, had written this account detailing how much work went into assembling the experiment and all of its (literally) moving parts.

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Beautiful, isn't it? But working on oyster reefs in Jacksonville hasn't been as nice as its sunrises.

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For many labs, the summer field season is a period of intensity and madness: a time for tackling far too many projects and cramming as much research as possible into a preciously short window. It’s a demanding flurry of activity occasionally bordering on chaos. The greatest challenge for technicians like myself is to maintain order in this pandemonium of science, and to carry out as much field work as efficiently as possible without going crazy.

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Come see us!

IGOR chip- employment 150Writing grants, collecting field data, looking at samples in the lab- activities such as these occupy the majority of a researcher’s time.  But sharing why the subject of the research is cool and interesting with the public is an important part of the job as well.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Open House at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory
Saturday, April 16
10:00am – 3:00pm

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David and an undergraduate research assistant at FSUCML Open House 2009

If you’ve been holding back your comments and questions as you read the blog, then this weekend is your chance to ask them in person! David and I, along with our graduate students and technicians, will be participating in the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab Open House on Saturday from 10:00am to 3:00pm.

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What do ecologists do for fun?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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Last week, David and I (along with all the students and technicians in our labs, and over 500 other ecologists/students) attended the Benthic Ecology Meeting in Mobile, AL. You may well wonder – what goes on at a meeting of ecologists? And what does “benthic” mean anyway?

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“Oh, knowledge exploring is oh so lyrical, when you think thoughts that are empirical.”

Emily Field FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
a survey of molluscs

The lab bench set up with all of the molluscan specimens for the students to study this week.

IGOR chip- employment 150These lyrics are from Mr. Ray’s teaching song in Finding Nemo. It’s too bad that I can’t sing all of my lessons!

I’m teaching Animal Diversity lab to undergrads on campus this semester.  This is a “survey” course, meaning that we go over the major phyla in the animal kingdom, learning one to three phyla each week.  The students get to look at preserved specimens and do their own dissections.  It’s so rewarding to hear a “that is so cool” reaction to whatever a student is looking at.

A few weeks ago, the students designed their own small experiments using planarians (small flatworms, see photo below).  It was great to see them think creatively and analytically in formulating their question and experimental design.  As with any set of experiments, some worked and some didn’t.  The strangest results we got were with two separate regeneration experiments: two different groups each cut a planarian in half, and somehow ended up with three planarians a week later! Spontaneous generation, anyone?  (What probably happened was either that the dish wasn’t sealed well and another planarian moved over from another experiment, or that the students accidentally made two cuts instead of one.  But it was still pretty surprising!)

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One of the planarians used in Animal Diversity lab. Isn't it cute?

One of the most direct benefits of teaching for me is that learning about biology in the classroom motivates students to learn more through field research.  The past two months I’ve been fortunate enough to have many eager undergraduates volunteer to help with my field surveys.  Thanks to the awesome waders Randall bought for the lab, we all managed to stay warm through the cold weather.  I’m very glad the weather is improving though.  This past weekend getting sunburned was more of a concern than staying warm!  I think the undergrads appreciate the change in weather even more than I do, since for some reason most of them are from south Florida.  In January, one of the students said he could tell I was from Maine when I zipped the fleece liner into the windproof shell of my field jacket.  I never knew you could identify where someone was from by their outerwear!  While admittedly surveying the first site with a group of new helpers takes a long time as they learn how to identify species, use the sweep nets, etc., it is great how quickly they pick it up.  On Sunday, two new helpers (Austin and Chris) and I surveyed four sites (compared to our usual maximum of 3 per day), and we were done before 5pm!  It wasn’t very long ago that I was an eager undergrad helping a grad student with her research, so I’ve been on both sides of the table.  I think it’s a great example of mutualism: grad students need help to realize their lofty research objectives, and undergrads need research experience.  At least I hope that they’re getting useful experience out of it!  I know I’m indebted to them for their help.

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Collecting algae in the rocky intertidal zone in Rhode Island. Photo by Carol Thornber.

My favorite part of teaching (in the field or in a classroom) is when students ask a bunch of questions.  That way I know they’re not bored!  This is particularly gratifying in the classroom.  I teach on Fridays, and at the beginning of the semester I was worried that I was going to end up with students who were unwillingly stuck with a Friday lab and would therefore be uninterested and lethargic.  But my students are great!  Sometimes they ask questions that really show they’re thinking critically and making connections.  I doubt they realize how clever their questions are, but they definitely make me think!

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At one of Randall's genetic diversity sites the first summer I worked for her.

Of course, there are frustrating parts of teaching.  In the classroom, you have to worry about how to prevent cheating, there are students whose main goal is to get out of lab as fast as possible and do the minimal amount of work required, and sometimes you’re not sure if you’re getting through to the students at all.  In the field, whether or not students understand your instructions has major implications on the reliability of the data they collect.  In both cases, it falls to you as the teacher to make sure your students are actively involved and fully comprehend both the instructions and the theory behind what you’re studying.  And the current climate for teachers isn’t particularly sunny in the states.  Rather depressingly grey, really.  But I still think getting one excited reaction or clever question makes dealing with the frustrations worth it.  I bet many teachers would agree with me.  So thanks to all of the teachers out there who work so hard and don’t get acknowledged often enough!

Emily is a graduate student in the Hughes Lab at the FSU Coastal & Marine Laboratory. She is studying the effects of seagrass wrack that washes into salt marshes
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The Zen of Labwork

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Tanya arranges oyster shells IGOR chip- employment 150Although the oyster project’s fieldwork has attracted most of the attention on this blog (indeed, it is where most of the action happens), our time at the lab deserves a bit of discussion as well, as much progress on the oyster project also happens behind walls. This is especially the case nowadays, in the winter, when fieldwork is kept to a minimum on account of weather and the general inactivity of animals on the reefs. What better time to catch up on processing the zillions of samples we’d collected over the past many months, but never quite had time to get to.

Labwork is a whole different beast than the energetically-demanding, volatile nature of fieldwork – I wouldn’t go so far as to call labwork boring, but it is often incredibly repetitive, time-consuming, and demanding of extreme patience. It’s certainly not as exciting, sensational, or enjoyable as fieldwork (in my opinion), but it is just as much an integral part of the science, and anyone who goes into research will probably spend much of their time sitting at a bench, repeating the same procedure twenty-thousand times in pursuit of the great dataset (that is, until you hire techs and grad students to do it for you). Yet labwork has an appeal and mystique all of its own that’s not to be overlooked.

Tanya shucks oysters

Certain tasks in marine biology necessitate learning skills used in commercial seafood. Here, Tanya shucks an oyster to remove the meat and weigh it.

So while David retires to his office and catches up on the uncountable tasks at hand there, I’ve holed up in the lab and plodded steadily through the several hundred samples of ours waiting patiently in the freezer. Lately, this has involved two major tasks. The first was to process the sediment organic matter (SOM) samples from our (and Jeb Byers’s) oyster reefs collected every 6 weeks since August. A total of 640 samples needed to be transferred from bags to aluminum dishes, dried for 3 hours at 105°C to evaporate any water, weighed, combusted for 3 hours at 525°C to incinerate and volatilize any organic material, and reweighed to determine the percent of the sediment composed of organic material. This analysis will allow us to compare how oysters affect the amount of organic material in the sediment across latitude. In case you ever wanted to know, 525°C (977°F) is pretty dang hot, and the smell of burning sediment that wafts down the hall during the first half hour or so in the furnace apparently smells exactly like an electrical fire.

Oyster jerky

Mmmm... oyster jerky!

My second task was to process samples of oysters we’d collected from our reefs during our intensive August surveys. After thawing them out, this involved measuring the total weight, wet and dry tissue weight, and various shell dimensions of 400 individual oysters. From these data we’ll be able to calculate an oyster condition index (health indicator), which we’ll be able to compare across sites. Obtaining wet and dry tissue mass required removing and weighing the meat (my oyster shucking skills increased greatly after this exercise), and reweighing it after drying for 48 hours at 70°C (this generated some quite odorous and not-all-too-appetizing looking oyster jerky). Between the sediment and oyster samples, I admit I had a monopoly of the marine lab’s drying ovens for a short while. I can say though that sticking your face in a drying oven is a great way to warm up on a cold winter’s day.

There are a variety of ways researchers try to liven up the tedious nature of labwork. Many listen to music or books on tape, or play movies in the background, or chat with labmates if others are around. Sometimes I’ll do these things, but other times I find the quiet monotony of labwork to be rather peaceful. There’s no stress or distractions or real need for thinking – just you, the calipers, the oysters, the datasheet. You kind of get in “the mode” and it can be rather, I don’t know… zen? At least for a little while. It’s a nice contrast to the intensive and unpredictable nature of science in the field.

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

Reviewing the Oyster Study in 2010


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Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
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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:

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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?

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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.

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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.

END DAY 1

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.

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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.

Ciao,

David

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