Tag Archives: mud crabs


Can crabs hear? (Revisited, with answers!)

P1050260Four years ago, we traveled out into the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor with Dr. David Kimbro.  It was both the start of an ambitious new study and of our In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Last June, we went back to those reefs with Dr. Randall Hughes as she, David, and their colleagues revisited study sites from North Carolina to the Florida Gulf.  In 2010, they sampled the reefs with nets and crab traps, and harvested small sections of reef.  This more recent sampling, which unfolds in the opening scenes of our recent documentary, Oyster Doctors, was conducted with underwater microphones.  Randall explains how sound became a tool in further understanding fear on oyster reefs.

The research in the following post was conducted while Randall and David worked at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University

A little over a year ago, I wrote about our research project, motivated by a question from WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas, to test whether crabs can hear the “songs” made by their fish predators. At the time, the work had not been published, and so I was not able to share all of the juicy details. But now it has, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so I can finally answer with a resounding YES!

To review a little bit, Rob’s question really had 2 parts:

  1. Can crabs hear (anything)? (They don’t have ears.)
  2. Do crabs respond to the sounds of their fish predators?

To answer #1, we paired up with Dr. David Mann. Dr. Mann is an expert in bioacoustics, and particularly in evaluating whether marine critters (primarily fish) can hear different sounds. We modified his methods slightly to accommodate our mud crabs – basically, we needed to immobilize the crabs on a ‘stretcher’ so that we could insert one electrode near the crab’s antennae, and another in the body cavity to pick up any background “noise” the crab may be produce that was not in response to the acoustic stimuli. Although it looks like mud crab torture, all the crabs survived the experiment!

Mud Crab Hearing TestWhat did we find? The crabs had a neurological response (i.e., they “heard”) a range of frequencies. They certainly wouldn’t ace any hearing tests, but if a sound is low- to mid- frequency and relatively close by, they can likely hear it. They do this using their statocyst, a structure containing sensory hairs that can detect changes in orientation and balance, and in this case, can detect changes in particle acceleration associated resulting from the acoustic stimuli.

Although cool to someone like me who is fascinated by marine biology, many of you are probably thinking “So what?”. And for that, we turn to the second part of our study, where we tested whether mud crabs change their eating habits in response to the songs made by their fish predators. We compared the number of juvenile clams that crabs ate when we played them either a silent recording or a recording of snapping shrimp (a common organism on oyster reefs that doesn’t eat crabs) to the number of clams that they ate when we played them recordings of songs from 3 fish that DO eat mud crabs – hardhead catfish, black drum, and toadfish. Apparently catfish and black drum songs are the same to a crab as the Jaws theme song is to me, because they hunkered down and did not eat nearly as many clams when they heard the calls of those two predators.


Phil Langdon feeds a catfish in an iteration of a mud crab hearing experiment.  They had already noticed that mud crabs were eating less when they heard sounds made by catfish and other predatory fish.  Here, they sought to measure whether the response was more intense with chemical cues (pumped via those tubes into tubs), or predator sounds (played from underwater speakers).

So, now we know that mud crabs can hear, and that they don’t eat as much when they hear some of their predators. But we also know from our earlier experiments that these same crabs don’t eat as much when exposed to water that hardhead catfish have been swimming in, most likely because they can “smell” chemicals in the water that the fish give off. So which catfish cue generates a stronger response – sound or smell? Turns out that both cues reduce crab foraging and to about the same degree, although in our experiment the effects of catfish songs were slightly stronger than the effects of catfish smell.

So what’s the take-home message from this work? For one, it highlights that we still have a lot to learn about the ocean and the animals that live in it – we (and others) have been studying these mud crabs for years and never thought to consider their ability to use one of the 5 major senses! In addition, it’s a reminder that in studying the “ecology of fear”, or the effects that predators have on their prey even when they don’t eat them, we need to remember that few predators are silent, and the sounds that they make could be important cues that prey use to escape being eaten. And finally, it demonstrates that science can be really fun!

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

Can crabs hear? (A testament to the benefits of collaboration)

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the ecology of fear in oyster reefs. What makes oysters too scared to eat, potentially keeping them from reaching market size or filtering water? What makes mud crabs too scared to eat oysters, giving the oysters a better chance to succeed? New research by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro might change the way we understand fear in mud crabs.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150When we started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, Rob (WFSU-TV Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas) embarked on a crash course learning about oyster reefs and salt marshes, biodiversity, and non-consumptive predator effects.  While you’re most likely familiar with those first few terms, the last one – non-consumptive effects – is a bit of a mouthful and hasn’t exactly made the list of new slang words of 2013.  The term refers to the ability of predators to SCARE their prey even when they don’t EAT them, causing the prey to hide, or eat less, or change their size/shape to make it less likely that they will be eaten.  Of course, these changes are only possible if the prey realizes the predator is there before getting eaten!  There are several “cues” that prey can use: (1) they can see them (visual cues); (2) they can feel them (physical cues); or (3) they can “smell” them (chemical cues).  This last category is really common in the ocean, especially with slimy snail or fish predators that give off lots of chemicals into the water!

As Rob was learning more about the fish predators that we find on our oyster reefs, he discovered audio clips of the sounds that several of these fish make.  Putting 2 and 2 together, he posed a simple question to David and me: Can mud crabs use fish sounds as a cue that their predators are near?

Housam collecting juvenile clams attached to oyster shells for use in the experiment.

To be quite honest, David and I didn’t have an answer.  But, we knew how to find out – do the experiment(s)!  We enlisted Housam Tahboub, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Flint, who wanted to do his summer Honors project in our labs.  (Little did he know what he was getting into.)  And then we set off on a crash course in bioacoustics, underwater speakers, and crab torture chambers (more on that in a minute).

Rob’s question really has 2 parts:
(1) Can crabs hear (anything)? (They don’t have ears.)
(2) Do crabs respond to the sounds of their fish predators?

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

A mud crab ready for his hearing test.

To answer #1, we paired up with Dr. David Mann at the University of South Florida. Dr. Mann is an expert in bioacoustics, and particularly in evaluating whether marine critters (primarily fish) can hear different sounds. We modified his methods slightly to accommodate our crabs – basically, we needed to immobilize the crabs on a ‘stretcher’ so that we could insert one electrode near the crab’s antennae, and another in the body cavity to pick up any background “noise” the crab may be produce that was not in response to the acoustic stimuli. Although I know it looks like crab torture, all the crabs survived the experiment!

A mud crab submerged in the acoustic chamber

A crab submerged in the acoustic chamber.

Once the crab was immobilized and the electrodes were in place, we submerged the crab in a tank full of seawater that had an underwater speaker in it. We then played a series of acoustic stimuli of different volumes and frequencies and quantified the response recorded by the electrode. The really nice thing about this method is that we don’t have to train the crabs to tell us when they hear the noise like in the hearing tests that you and I take!

A marked oyster shell with juvenile clams glued on it as a crab buffet.

To tackle question #2, we set up a mesocosm experiment at FSUCML. Each mesocosm (aka, bucket) had sediment, a layer of loose oyster shell to serve as habitat for the crabs, and 5 mud crabs that we collected from nearby oyster reefs. We also added some juvenile clams glued to a few marked oyster shells in each mesocosm – this way, we could count the number of clams eaten over time and determine whether crabs were eating more or less in response to the predator sounds.

To run the experiment, we downloaded sound clips of several different crab predators – toadfish, black drum, and hardhead catfish – as well as 2 non-predators to serve as controls – snapping shrimp and a silent recording. Housam put these on his iPod, connected it to an amplifier and underwater speaker, and we were ready to begin.

(Well, let’s be honest, it wasn’t quite that simple. Housam read a lot of papers to figure out the best methods, spent lots of time collecting crabs, and logged lots of hours (both day and night, in the company of mosquitoes and biting flies) moving the speaker from tank to tank before we finally settled on a good protocol. He even tried all of this in the field! But when his summer ended, Tanya, Phil, and Ryan kindly stepped in to run the rest of the trials we needed.)

But we didn’t stop there. We know from our earlier experiments with Kelly Rooker (another undergraduate researcher) that the crabs don’t eat as much when exposed to water that hardhead catfish have been swimming in, most likely because they can detect chemicals in the water that the fish give off. So which cue generates a stronger response – chemical cues or sound cues? Time for another experiment!

Phil checks on the mesocosm experiment at FSUCML

In this version, the mesocosms were assigned to one of 4 combinations: (1) a silent recording, paired with water pumped from a tank holding 2 hardhead catfish into the mesocosm; (2) a recording of a hardhead catfish, paired with water that did not go through the catfish tank; (3) a recording of a hardhead catfish, paired with water from the catfish tank; (4) a silent recording, paired with water that did not go through the catfish tank. We again looked at the number of clams eaten over time to see how the crabs change their behavior.

This project has been a lot of fun, and it never would have happened were it not for Rob’s curiosity. We gave a preview of our results at the Benthic Ecology conference in Savannah, GA, last weekend. But we’ll have to wait until everything is reviewed by other scientists and published in a scientific journal before we can share all of the details here. So stay tuned!

Music in the piece by zikweb.

Black Drum recording used in the video courtesy of James Locascio and David Mann, University of South Florida College of Marine Science.

Catfish and toadfish recordings copyright University of Rhode Island.  They were obtained from dosits.org, under these terms:

Copyright 2002-2007, University of Rhode Island, Office of Marine Programs. All Rights Reserved. No material from this Web site may be copied, reproduced, re-published, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way except that you may download one copy of the materials on any single computer for non-commercial, personal, or educational purposes only, provided that you (1) do not modify such information and (2) include both this notice and any copyright notice originally included with such information. If material is used for other purposes, you must obtain permission from the University of Rhode Island. Office of Marine Programs to use the copyrighted material prior to its use.

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

Mud crabs (like the one pictured here), oyster drills, and crown conchs are the primary consumers of oysters on the reef.

How Do Predators Use Fear to Benefit Oysters?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the concept of the ecology of fear on oyster reefs. But, as David asks in the video, “does it matter?” Exactly how much does fear affect oyster filtration, or their ability to support commercially and ecologically important species? And how does fear affect the benefits we receive from ecosystems such as salt marshes and seagrass beds? Coming up, we see how David and Randall took these big questions and broke them down into a series of experiments and investigations geared at creating a clearer picture of fear in the intertidal zone.
Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150A few weeks ago, we had a bayside conversation about the important link between nutrients and oysters. But there is something else that may dictate whether a reef thrives: predators.

Academically, the importance of predators dates back to the 1960s. Some smart people proposed that the world is green because we have lots of big animals, which eat all of the smaller animals that would otherwise consume all the plants…hence the green world.

busycon eating moon snail

Busycon spiratum eating an Atlantic Moon snail on Bay Mouth Bar. These seagrass beds off of Alligator Point are home to the greatest diversity of predatory snails in the world. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dr. Robert Paine investigated the effect of the horse conch, the most dominant predator among the snails, on the habitat. David and his crew have similarly used the dynamic invertebrate population to test their theories on the ecology of fear. (click the photo for more on Bay Mouth Bar).

Now, that’s a pretty simple yet powerful concept.  Since then, lots of studies have tested the importance of predators and how they keep our world spinning. For example, Bob Paine relentlessly braved the icy waters of the NW Pacific for a decade in order to chunk ravenous sea stars from one rocky cliff, but not the other. After several years, the cliff with sea stars still had a tremendous diversity of sea creatures (algae, anemones etc.) and the cliff without predatory sea stars did not. The absence of sea stars allowed pushy, bullying mussels to outcompete all other animals for space and this gave the rocky cliff a uniform and boring mussel complexion.

The same concept has been tested on land. Ripple and Beschetta showed us why the national parks out west no longer have the really important and woody trees (aspen, willow, and cottonwood) that they historically had. By suppressing wolves for the last 50 years, we allowed elk numbers to explode and the elk have overrun the really important woody species.

But predators don’t just eat.  Enter my vivid memory of trying out for the Nash Central 8th grade football team in rural North Carolina. Contrary to my father in-law’s belief (who is a hall of fame football coach in Georgia), I wanted to play football instead of soccer.  But when it came time for try-outs, fear prevented me from pursuing this line of work.  To practice breaking tackles, each player had to lie on the ground and the rest of the team formed a circle around this player.  Unbeknownst to the guy on the ground, the coach secretly selected three players to tackle the football player at the sound of the whistle.  For twenty minutes, I watched physically un-developed friend after late-blooming friend get crushed by other guys who were definitely not late bloomers. The sights and sounds of this drill kept me nauseous until it was my turn. When my turn came, I couldn’t deal with the fear, didn’t perform well, and consequently became a soccer player.

My point is that fear is very powerful. Of course, I knew the charging football players were not going to eat me. But if I was paralyzed with fear from football, then imagine what it’s like for something that has to worry about being eaten. Going to back “the world is green” story: what if we overlay the concept of fear on that? How does the story change?

Well, the next generation of predator studies has examined how the fear of predators can be just as important as the appetite of predators. In addition, because predators can only eat only one animal at a time but can simultaneously frighten many more, fear can create powerful “remote-control effects”. In Australia, the fear of tiger sharks causes dugongs to avoid certain depths in a bay. As a result, only a small portion of the seagrass beds get grazed down by dugongs, possibly being one of the main reasons why areas like Shark Bay still have huge and lush seagrass meadows.

Mud crabs (like the one pictured here), oyster drills, and crown conchs are the primary consumers of oysters on the reef.

For the next few weeks, we will look at some work that my friends and I have conducted for the past three years on how predators and the fear of predators influence oyster reefs and the services that they provide us throughtout the southeast. Although we have the same predators and things that like to eat oysters from North Carolina to Florida, we suspect that differences in the environment will cause the effect of predators to play out differently.

In parting, I just want to say that this predator stuff is really interesting and I think it’s very important for oyster reefs. But of course, when you are dealing with an ecosystem that may be on the verge of collapse like Apalachicola Bay, the distinction between the appetite and fear of predators may not matter that much. But, we will soon see because we are now investigating this important system too.

We’ll be following the Apalach study as well. Here, Stephanie Buhler, who we had previously seen diving in Apalachicola Bay, welds a cage to house an upcoming experiment in that research. It’s a variation of the tile experiments that became such a staple of the NSF oyster study. In a few days, we break down the tile experiment, and David’s collaborator, Dr. Randall Hughes, talks about what the results are telling them so far.

Music in the video by Revolution Void.

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

Spat on a Platter

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150“Spat tiles” are a tool our lab commonly uses to measure the growth and survivorship of juvenile oysters under different conditions, and we’ve used them with varying degrees of success in many of the experiments chronicled in this blog. What these are essentially (in their final form, after a good degree of troubleshooting), are little oysters glued to a tile, which is glued to a brick, which is glued to a mesh backing, which is zip tied vertically to a post. Rob and I have put together a couple interesting slideshows chronicling the growth of these spat over time from two of those experiments. Ever wonder how fast oysters grow? Observe…

This is a time series from our first spat tile experiment, which you can read about in this post. As you may recall, this experiment was largely a failure because the adhesive we used to adhere the spat was inadequate. However, we decided to keep the fully caged tiles out on the reefs to see how they fared over time in different locations. I photographed the tiles every 6 weeks or so, so that we now have a series showing their growth over time. The slideshow shows one of the tiles from Jacksonville. It starts in October of 2010. You’ll notice that not much growth occurs though the late fall and winter, but the spat start to grow noticeably from April-June 2011. From June-September the spat grow explosively and many new spat settle on the tile from the water column and grow equally rapidly. Just as plants (and algae) have a summer growing season, so too do the oysters that feed on them, when conditions are warm and there is abundant phytoplankton in the water to eat.

Next is a series of images from our caging experiment last summer, which you can read about here. Our large cages contained either:


no predators (bivalves only),


spat-consuming mud crabs and oyster drills (consumers),


or mud crabs and oyster drills plus blue crabs and toadfish (predators).

The spat tiles within the larger cages were placed either exposed to potential predators or protected from them in a smaller subcage. Here are typical examples of what tiles looked like at the end of the experiment (about 2 months after starting). You can see how all the spat on the unprotected tiles were wiped out in the consumer treatments, but a good number survived in the treatments with no predators, as we would predict. In the predator treatments, most of the spat on unprotected tiles were removed, but not as fully or quickly as in the consumer treatments, which we would predict if the predators are inhibiting consumption of spat by the mud crabs and drills through consumptive or non-consumptive effects. You’ll see one tiny spat holding on in the predator tile shown. On the protected tiles, most of the spat survived in all treatments, as expected. We plan to further analyze the photographs from the protected tiles though, to see whether spat growth rates differed between them. We may find that protected spat in the consumer treatments grew slower than in the other treatments because of non-consumptive predator effects.

Currently, we’ve recovered most of our arsenal of spat tiles from the field, and I say we have probably amassed enough bricks to pave an entire driveway! Good thing we can reuse them!

The Biogeographic Oyster Study is funded by the National Science Foundation.


Scared hungry?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

A hardhead catfish, one of a mud crab's primary predators on North Florida oyster reefs.

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150As David has mentioned previously, predators can affect their prey by eating them (a very large effect to the prey individual concerned!) or by changing their behavior. And exactly how the prey change their behavior can have large consequences for the things that they eat. For instance, if you’re out camping and hear a bear lumbering around, do you quickly pack up all your food and put it out of reach of the bear and yourself? Or do you quickly eat as much as you can?

This summer we worked with Kelly, an undergraduate from Bridgewater College, to document how mud crabs deal with this dilemma of getting enough to eat but not getting eaten themselves.


Kelly with the broken down truck on an ill-fated return trip from St. Augustine.

Specifically, we wanted to know how they respond to the presence or absence of catfish, and how this response affects the survival of juvenile oysters. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, yes, in concept, but as Kelly quickly discovered, putting that “on paper” concept into reality at the lab took a lot of time and effort!


First, she had to get the “mesocosms” (aka large tubs) ready to serve as adequate habitat for the crabs, with plenty of sand and dead oyster shell for them to hide in.


Next, Kelly took individual juvenile oysters, or “spat”, and used a marine adhesive to attach them to small tiles that we could distribute among all of the mesocosms.


Juvenile oysters attached with Zspar (a marine adhesive) to a tile so we could assess mud crab predation.


You may have noticed that I mentioned catfish, and that these mesocosms are not particularly large relative to the size of a catfish. Never fear – because we wanted to separate the effects of catfish cues from the effects of catfish actually eating mudcrabs, the catfish were kept in a much larger tank, and then water from this tank was pumped into the mesocosms receiving catfish cues. (Setting up the pump and tubing to 60+ tanks was a several-day effort in itself!)


The catfish tank, with tubing carrying catfish "cues" to individual mesocosms.

Once everything was in place, it was time to collect the mud crabs. We couldn’t collect the crabs gradually, because they like to eat each other when confined in small spaces in the lab, so we garnered as much help as we could and held our own little mud crab rodeo. (And got caught in quite a thunderstorm in Alligator Harbor, but that’s another story).

Finally, it was time to start the experiment! We measured the size of each of the mud crabs, added them to the mesocosms, and let them eat (or not). Each day, Kelly would count the number of live oysters remaining, and she would remove a few mud crabs from some of the mesocosms to simulate catfish predation. There were a lot of moving parts to this experiment, and Kelly did a great job managing it!

And what did we find? Turns out that individual mud crabs actually eat more juvenile oysters when they are exposed to catfish cues and the removal / disappearance of some of their neighboring mud crabs, compared to just the removal of neighboring mud crabs or the absence of catfish cues. But overall, the the removal of mud crabs have a positive effect on oyster survival. (Even though individual crabs may eat more, there are not as many crabs around, so it’s a net positive for oysters.)


Mud crabs ate more oysters per individual in buckets with exposure to catfish cues and high rates of manual removal of mud crabs (to simulate predation).

Kelly has returned to classes, so we’ve now recruited a new assistant, Meagan, to help us with an experiment to address the additional questions that inevitably arise as you learn more about a system – for example, do mud crabs behave differently if catfish are around all the time versus only some of the time? We’ll keep you posted…

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

Oyster Study: Year Two, Under Way in a Big Way

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR_chip_predators_NCE_100IGOR chip- biogeographic 150I’ve come to Saint Augustine to get the last of the footage I need to finish the In the Grass, On the Reef documentary, and we’ve come a long way from where we started from on this blog.  One year ago today, this site went live and Randall and David introduced you to their research.  The oyster study had just gotten its grant from NSF and we went out with David as he walked out into Alligator Harbor in search of study sites.  It was a slow, messy day- but a necessary first step. Continue reading

In the Grass, On the Reef, Over the Airwaves

In the Grass, On the Reef

June 29, 2011 at 7:30 PM/ ET


Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

A little over a year ago, when the FSU Coastal & Marine Laboratory and WFSU-TV – a TV station – started this online enterprise, the understanding was that at some point this would end up being a show.  And so here we are.  As you may have gathered from that video up there, this will be about predators and prey: who’s eating whom, and who’s scaring whom.  We will of course be doing this through the prism of David and Randall’s studies: the consumptive and non-consumptive effects of predators in salt marshes and oyster reefs, and the methods used to shine a light on these interactions. Continue reading

The New Predator Experiment

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR_chip_predators_NCE_100IGOR chip- biogeographic 150Hey folks,

Where did my winter of catching up on work go? And why is spring quickly hurtling into summer? YIKES!

…Okay, I feel better. All of us here feel a little behind on things, because this past winter and spring have been full of other projects (in addition to the oyster one) such as investigating how the oil spill affected marshes throughout the west coast of Florida and examining what all of those snails are up to out on Bay Mouth Bar. But now that summer is almost upon us, it’s time to move all hands on deck back towards the ambitious summer oyster goals.

Environment versus Predation

Environmental vs. Predator Effects.

To lay the ground work for this summer’s oyster research, I spent a few days in St. Augustine, Florida, which is where we will conduct our colossal field experiment. As a recap of the oyster objectives, we spent year 1 monitoring the oyster food web at 12 estuaries between Florida to North Carolina. Well, we found some cool patterns regarding the food web and water-filtration/ nutrient cycling services on oyster reefs (see the 2010 wrap-up). So, now we want to know what’s causing those patterns. Are differences in oyster reefs between NC to FL due purely to differences in water temperature, salinity, or food for oysters (phytoplankton)? Or, do we have a higher diversity of predators down south that are exerting more “top-down” pressure on the southern reefs? Or, is it a combination of the environment and predators? Continue reading

Reviewing the Oyster Study in 2010

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150IGOR chip- biogeographic 150IGOR chip- habitat 150IGOR chip- employment 150

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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:

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.


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.


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.
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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


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.


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’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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