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?
The lab bench set up with all of the molluscan specimens for the students to study this week.
These 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!)
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.
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!
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
Although 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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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.