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Winter in the marsh

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Vacuuming bugs out of wrack

Emily and Hanna, in matching green waders, vacuum bugs on "Island 4."

IGOR chip- employment 150IGOR chip- biodiversity 150It has been COLD the last few times we’ve been out in the field. The first time (described accurately by Rob), we did not have sufficient cold weather field gear – David lent us some emergency use chest waders that he had on hand, and they were much appreciated despite the fact that we looked really silly and they were all split open at the feet by the end of the day!

Immediately upon my return to the lab, I ordered my team the trusty neoprene chest waders that I used throughout graduate school in northern California. As Emily and I can attest after going out twice more in the cold since then, they make a big difference!

Winter field gear

Newly purchased neoprene waders and fingerless gloves for winter field work.

Aside from the change in attire, what else is different in the cold? Most obvious is that many of the cordgrass stems in our survey plots are dead. In marshes north of here, the above-ground portions of the plant will actually die back completely in the winter, re-sprouting from below-ground reserves in the spring. Here, there are fewer stems overall, and certainly fewer bright green live ones, but the plants will continue to slowly put up new stems throughout the winter.

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The photos above are of Island 4 over the course of WFSU's documenting this work. The photo on the left is from May 13. The one in the center was taken at the end of Summer. You can see the grass is taller and more verdant, with cordgrass reproductive shoots popping up over the blades. The last photo is from the first of December.

The cordgrass reproductive stems are also now dead – most of them dropped their seeds in late November / early December, so they have done their job. Emily and I made a special trip to all of our survey sites a week or so ago to set out “seed traps”. And what, exactly, is a seed trap? In this case, it’s a Styrofoam bowl lined with Tanglefoot, the incredibly sticky substance that we use on our mesocosms to keep snails from climbing out.

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Any seeds (or seagrass wrack, other plant material, bugs, or anything else, really) that fall into the bowl will stick, allowing us to count the number of seeds that get to each area. We are particularly interested in whether seagrass wrack abundance increases or decreases the number of seeds in an area. We’ll go back in January to pick them up and start counting.

We have some plants in the greenhouse that we’re growing for experiments this spring, and they have been getting a little extra TLC on these cold, cold nights. We cover them with frost blankets at the end of the day, and then uncover them again in the mornings when it’s warmed up a bit. They seem to like the extra warmth!

Frost blankets in the greenhouse

Our greenhouse tables covered in (appropriately) green frost blankets on cold winter nights.

From a logistics perspective, the winter is pretty different for a number of reasons. First, it’s harder to find people available to go in the field. (And on really cold days, it’s not very appealing!) Emily will be back on campus taking and teaching classes next semester, so we’ll probably have to do some portion of the monthly surveys over the weekend, hopefully with the help of some undergraduate interns.

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Looks like we're walking.

The second logistical challenge is the change in the tides. For most of the year, the low tide is in the evening / night, so it is easiest to kayak to our sites during the morning and early afternoon. In the winter, the low tide shifts to the middle of the day, and it’s often made even lower by a strong north wind, making it virtually impossible to kayak anywhere during daylight hours!

Our solution is to walk to the sites that we can, and kayak as close as we can to the others before we start walking. It’s a good thing that St. Joe Bay is shallow!

In January, we’ll be sampling fishes and small crabs in the marsh. We do this every couple of months to see how the abundance of the more mobile marsh community members changes seasonally. I don’t expect that we’ll find much, but I’ll let you know!

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

Cold and Wet: Field Research in the Winter

Waves on Cape San Blas rocks

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- employment 150I was driving to Stump Hole with my production assistant Kevin when we saw these waves crashing on the rocks on the beach side of Cape San Blas.  Like any good production people, we knew the only thing to do was to climb the rocks and get footage and stills of the scene.  The same wind pushing the waves at us rocked us a little bit as we balanced- only slightly precariously- on the big stones.  It was a little after 8:30 AM and we had some time to kill before Randall and her team showed up.  And then we would kayak into the bay just across the street.

In early December I made my first winter forays into coastal environments.  Randall has already written about the seasonal shift from Summer to Autumn, where the flora and fauna are reproducing and animals are abundant in the marshes.  Winter is an entirely different beast, as I would see when we got to their sites.  But first, we actually had to get to these sites.

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After everyone was there, we kayaked east from Stump Hole with a stiff north wind pushing us on our left.  Rowing to the left was like rowing into a wall, and there were a couple of marshes in our way where we had to get out and lug the kayaks to the other side.  Saltwater splashed into my eyes and onto my glasses.  I kept my squinty eyes forward and we got to a site that for the purposes of this study is known as Island 4.

The research crew went about their normal survey work, with Randall taking a quadrat to several specific spots within the marsh to see how much grass and other species were within its PVC boundary, how tall the grass is and how many Spartina shoots were dead.  Using markers and a GPS, they’ll have data from these precise spots over a span of three years.  Emily and Hanna vacuumed bugs out of the grass and surveyed seagrass wrack.  They will, as always, search for patterns over time, and I suspect the data collected in the winter months will quantify some of what we saw with our own eyes.

Sea Urchin shell washed up on marsh

While we didn't see the usual critters swimming and crawling about, some cool stuff washed in from the bay, such as sponges, lightning whelk egg casings, and this sea urchin shell.

Last time I was at this site, some male blue crabs were fighting over a female.  They were so engrossed that I was able to get fairly close without their bolting away.  All manner of predatory snails oozed about, little fish darted in and out of the sparse shoots at the periphery, and a ray laid low in an adjacent seagrass bed.  Today it looked like they had all packed up and left for the season.  And, when it came time to go our next site, so had the water in the bay.

A combination of the tide and the strong wind left the south side of the bay somewhat empty.  Taking a few steps with our kayaks in hand, we decided instead to leave them at the island while we walked our gear over to a mainland marsh known as Wrack 5.

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This was another site where I had always seen an abundance of fauna. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of fiddler crabs would scurry away from me into the grass in this one corner of the marsh.  As Randall explained to me, the fiddlers bury themselves in the winter.  Blue crabs swim into the deeper part of the bay, to the north.  Randall didn’t know exactly what happened to the crown conchs, though when digging cordgrass up for an experiment she had come upon a buried conch.  And with their predators all gone, the marsh periwinkles had descended to the bottom of the spartina plants.

Lightning Whelk shellOne thing I did see a lot of were lightning whelk shells.  I picked them up and looked inside, wondering, are they more cold tolerant than the other species?  They’re not.  But their shells were pretty.

The following Monday I went to Alligator Harbor with Tanya and Hanna, and it was a lot of the same.  We dragged our kayaks from the ramp to the first site and walked between the islands to the second and third sites.  It was a much muckier walk than in St. Joe Bay (the oysters like it mucky), and I was breaking in a new pair of crappy old sneakers to be my oyster reef shoes.  This is how they fared:

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Now that I’ve muddied my hands pulling my shoe out, where’s all that water?

Have any of you trekked out into the cold coastal waters this season? Share your stories!

The many personalities of a grad student

Emily Field FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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IGOR chip- employment 150You’ve heard about research from a lab tech’s perspective from Tanya, and from a Principle Investigator (PI)’s perspective from Randall and David, so I thought I’d give you a graduate student’s insight. Being a grad student is kind of like being a mash-up of a tech, a student, and a PI: you do a lot of the “dirty work,” but you also have to be able to direct other students and manage your own research. You’re taking classes, but you’re also teaching. You’re writing grant proposals for future projects, but you’re also trying to figure out how to analyze data from past projects. And while this might sound hectic enough to create split personalities, I love it! I get to develop my own projects, take challenging and interesting classes, and help Randall with her projects. In fact, my favorite thing about work is that it’s such a tumbled mix of things: my time is split between the lab, field, classroom, and desk. Life as a grad student is never boring!

Emily and Robyn getting gear ready to collect porewater samples

Emily and Robyn getting gear ready to collect porewater samples.

I moved to Florida in May 2009, right after graduating from University of Rhode Island, and worked for Randall as a tech before starting school in the fall. It was a great way to familiarize myself with the system and learn appropriate sampling techniques for the area. I came in thinking that I wanted to work with epiphytes (small seaweeds that grow on other plants/seaweed) on seagrass. I did develop a project working with Chris Stallings on his huge Big Bend survey looking at the epiphytes throughout the region, but as I was working for Randall, I became more and more interested in developing my own project in the salt marsh. I am now studying the effects of wrack in the marsh. The epiphyte project is ongoing, and a marine certificate student, Michele Sosa, took over the project this summer so that I would have more time to develop my wrack research.

Learn more about Emily’s seagrass wrack study.

I think that is one thing I’ve learned as a grad student: there’s so much you could do, that it can be hard at first to pick one thing to develop into an interesting and informative project. If you’re not careful, you might end up with a bunch of semi-related “side projects.” I definitely owe Randall a lot for helping me stay focused and develop a clear project with a solid theoretical basis. As Tanya said, when there is a lot of work to do, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details and forget the big picture –which you definitely can’t do when you’re in charge of the project!

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Dr. Randall Hughes and Emily Field.

The other trick to grad school is balance, which can have a steep learning curve! One of the first things they tell you when you enter school as a graduate student is that you’re expected to work 60 hours a week: 20 on your coursework, 20 on teaching or your advisor’s research (depending on what you’re being paid for), and 20 on your own research. Of course, every week does not break down into this perfect division, but I think the main point to remember is to balance all of your responsibilities. Which is much, much easier said than done. As I’m writing this post, I’m thinking about the various other tasks I should probably be doing. My bugs need sorting, that paper needs reading, those buckets need mending… the list goes on. But, hey, I knew what I signed up for when I decided to go to grad school. I was warned. However, if you ever see me talking to myself, do me a favor and send for the nice men in the white coats?

Watch Emily survey seagrass beds and learn more about epiphytic algae.

Comments are welcome!

Way Back When On the Reef

IGOR chip- employment 150Along with David’s remembrances of his early life in marine biology, we have a video on one of David’s collaborators in this oyster study, Jeb Byers. Like all of the collaborators on the study, Jeb attended the University of North Carolina, where he overlapped with Jon Grabowski.  Alicia Brown was sent up to help Jeb’s team during the October Oyster Push, so we lent her a Flip camera to document the proceedings.  She got footage of some of the fish they caught, including the sharks that predate their reefs.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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L to R- Tanya Rogers, Dr. Jon Grabowski, Hanna Garland, and Dr. David Kimbro. Here you have three "generations" of researchers and techs. Just as David was once Jon's lab technician, Hanna and Tanya help David today with his projects.

Burrrrr….it’s cold down here and I love it…a nice break from the no see’ums! We are gearing up to hit the road for some regular sampling (water/sediment sampling and down load instrumentation) as well as to check on the tile experiment that began 6 weeks ago. Props again to Tanya for getting us organized to go! Although, I have some anxiety about what I’ll see on the tiles because the adhesive we used to affix the oysters may not be working as planned; more on that that in the next post after we get a visual on things.

For now, I want to pick up where Randall last left off by reminiscing about how I first got into the research/oyster business and how it’s all Jon’s fault. Like Randall, I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was equally clueless about what I wanted to do in life. However, I did know that the coast was where I wanted to be.

While Randall, Jon, and many others where schlepping around tons of oyster shell in the hot North Carolinian summer, I was having a good time surfing by day and waiting tables by night.  All in all, I’d say that my summer was much more relaxing than theirs!

But after spending lots of time enjoying the coastal environment, I realized that I needed to look into this whole marine science thing. So, I began to nose around UNC’s marine lab and volunteered a little bit. By this time, Randall had taken off to teach middle school and Jon just got a prestigious offer to conduct research in Antarctica. But there was one glitch: who was going to run his oyster project in NC? He couldn’t just push the pause button on this research. Luckily, he had one last greater helper (Meg) whom he began training to be the boss. But she needed an underling. Enter me. Because they could not find a qualified research technician within three counties to hire, Jon decided to give ignorant me a shot. I was immediately told that the work was grueling and that the pay was peanuts. But I figured it had to be better than sitting indoors and watching the clock. Plus, Randall had already done the hard work by building all of those reefs; thank goodness I wasn’t on board for that madness!

Reaping the rewards from all the hard work that Randall and Jon exerted to build the oyster reefs, I got the easy work of just monitoring them and it was fun. When Jon returned from Antarctica, he saw that I hadn’t messed up anything too badly. That, coupled with my always asking him research questions made him decide to give me a little project of my own. And it is this experience that really sent me on my way into marine ecology. So, as I paddle my kayak out to the oyster reefs, think about interesting research questions, and enjoy the scenery, I often think back about the wonderful and fortuitous opportunity that Jon first gave me.

mud crab on Alligator Harbor oyster reef

Mud crab (Panopeus herbstrii)

Ok, do I have any stories? Of course. One classic story that seems to get re-told every time Jon and I get together concerns our ripping up his restored oyster reefs to see what critters lived within them. Now, Jon was really interested in mud crabs, how they affected oysters by eating them, and how larger predators affected this dynamic by eating or scaring the mud crabs. So, while I (the rookie) was working through samples, he was a bit concerned that I was missing many of the smaller crabs. Knowing about his concern as well as being a little bit grumpy about being over worked and being a little naughty, I decided to leave about 5 or so pretty large mud crabs in my sieve. I then said, “hey Jon, to make sure I’m doing this correctly, will you check over my sample to see if I missed any crabs?”. By this time, I had already processed many, many hours worth of samples. So, when Jon looked at my sieve, he immediately freaked out and thought about how many of the other samples I must of messed up. Oh, I had such a good laugh. Thirteen years later, I think this story still gets Jon’s blood pressure up.

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Years later, David heads his own team, and he and Randall are colleagues and collaborators with Dr. Grabowski.

What else…well, the winter work was so boring in North Carolina (lots of indoor time spent going through sediment samples) that I had to turn to coffee to help me make it through the late afternoon; with Meg’s persuasion (she was an addict and wanted some company). I stubbornly refused this drug all throughout college because I did not want to be an addict with smelly coffee breathe. But Meg was very persuasive and she started me out with small doses of Dunkin Donuts froofy, flavored coffees. Boy, this and some good 80’s music really helped me survive the late afternoon hours of sorting Jon’s samples in the lab. Next thing you know, I’m asking Jon for a coffee break (“hey man, can I take a quick trip to the Double D?”) every afternoon. Because Jon was a stingy boss (I say this with love), my and Meg’s new afternoon routine really annoyed Jon. But gosh, had I been open-minded about the joys of coffee back in college, I would have graduated with honors! In summary, the boringness of Jon’s project during the winter gave rise to my love of coffee (as Tanya eloquently captured in her last post), and it bugged the crap out of Jon…that and my caffeinated singing of 80’s songs in his lab during the later winter afternoons.

I could keep going with more stories, but I don’t want to give Tanya and Hanna any ideas or ammunition, so I’ll stop here.

Talk soon,
David

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

Kimbro board

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- employment 150After a cold, wet field day in St. Joe Bay with Randall Hughes and her crew, I stopped by the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab to hose off and return some waders they had lent us.  While there I decided to stop and say hi to David Kimbro and saw this dry erase board on his wall.  For some reason, it made me think of the first post I wrote for this blog.  In that post, and in a good majority of our posts and videos since, we showed and talked about the down and dirty side of science- field work in muddy places.  Early morning kayaking, pulling half-eaten fish out of gill nets, vacuuming bugs out of cordgrass- it makes for good video.

But that isn’t all of it, of course.  I said in that first post that science isn’t all test tubes and lab coats.  But lo and behold, Randall and David do have labs where their samples are processed, and they do have lab equipment and run experiments in controlled environments.  We have shown some of that as well.  And there is quite a bit of work they do at desks on computers, on paper, or up on their dry-erase boards.  I haven’t shot and edited that video yet.  But it’s worth some examination.

Snail experiment: periwinkles on juncus

This experiment measured the impact of periwinkle snails on the grasses they climb. Some cages had cordgrass, some (like this one) had needlerush, and others had a combination of the two. Control cages had grass with no snails.

Moving clockwise from the upper right of that board you have a diagram showing tides at Baymouth Bar, for a project we’ll be covering sometime soon.  There are also some equations that David and Tanya have been working on.  The speckled circles represent different cages or tanks for an experiment in the process of being planned.  Randall and David often conduct experiments where multiple tubs and cages have variations of different factors (i.e. some have short grass, some have long grass, some have a combination of grasses, etc.  The snail experiment is a good example).  The oval with the squares in it represents Baymouth Bar, split into regions.  The triangle is a rough sketch of a food web, and the numbers in the upper left are grant numbers.

David said he’s afraid to erase anything on the board, even though he snapped a photo of it (and I’ve now immortalized it online).  These are ideas waiting to be actualized.  The little circles will become tubs full of predatory snails.  Activities planned for low and high tide will be carried out, and theories tested.  And so, like cutting crabs out of a shark’s belly, or counting how much grass is in a quadrat, this is science.

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