Tag Archives: 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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Are two friends better than one?

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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Sand fiddler crab.

This summer we’ve been conducting an experiment on our new deck to look at the effects of fiddler crabs and ribbed mussels on Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass).

Past studies by Dr. Mark Bertness have shown that crabs and mussels by themselves can have positive effects on plant growth – most likely because crabs can reduce the stress of low oxygen in the sediments by building their burrows, and mussels can add nutrients to the sediments.

Fig. 3 from Bertness 1984, Ecology 65: 1794-1807

Figure 3 from Mark Bertness's 1984 Ecology study illustrating the positive effects of mussel presence (white bars) on Spartina

Table 3 from Bertness 1985, Ecology 66: 1042-1055

Table 3 from Mark Bertness's 1985 Ecology study. Fiddler removal has a negative effect on Spartina in the marsh flat, but not the marsh edge.

Although both fiddlers and mussels occur together in the field, no studies have looked at how the combination affects the plants. Are the positive effects of each species by itself doubled? Or are they redundant with each other? Do crabs somehow reduce the positive effect of mussels, or vice-versa? How many crabs or mussels do you need to get a positive effect on Spartina? These are some of the questions that we hope to answer with our experiment.


Our new deck at FSUCML.

But first, we had to get everything set up. There were several long and hot days of shoveling sand into our “mesocosms” (10 gallon buckets) – many thanks to Robyn, Chris, Althea, and all the others who took care of that task! Then there was another day spent transplanting the Spartina.


Chris, Randall, and Robyn work to transplant Spartina from the greenhouse to the mesocosms.

Finally, it was time to add the fiddlers and mussels, and everything began!


Mussels nestled among the Spartina stems in one of our experimental mesocosms

Althea and Chris have been leading the charge on this experiment, and they’ve spent a lot of time getting to know (and identify) the fiddler crabs. All in all, a pretty fun study organism!


Althea working to identify fiddler crab species.

We’ll continue the experiment another month and then measure the height and density of the plants in each treatment to see if there are any differences. Once this experiment is complete, we’ll set up a separate one asking somewhat of the converse question – are two enemies (periwinkle snails and grasshoppers) worse than one? We’ll keep you posted.

Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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Growing Pains (bigger is definitely not always better)

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

California oyster cages

IGOR chip- biogeographic 150The small cages in the photo above were used in an experiment I conducted to study California oysters. The insanely large cages in the photo below are from an experiment designed for our insanely large biogeographic oyster study.

David by cage
While we had planned to install only 18 of these cages along the Atlantic coast of Florida, my crew wound up installing 70 cages over about six weeks. How did we reach such inflation in the number of cages and amount of digging? Well, it mainly stemmed from my ignorance of this area and the St. Johns River, which happens to dump a lot of sediment around oyster reefs. Because this sediment is deep and flocculent, it’s dangerous and almost impossible to work in. In fact, I may design a new study to analyze how oyster reefs manage to keep themselves above this ever-growing mud pit. I digress.

Relative to the abundance of these un-workable oyster reefs, mudflat areas suitable for our new experiment (i.e., near oyster reefs and firm footing) are quite rare. It was our luck (for better or worse, as you will soon read), we stumbled upon a sufficiently and suitable mudflat north of Jacksonville. After three days of hard digging, we managed to create large cages ready to support our experimental treatments. Suspecting that this site seemed too good to be true, we left the cages to fend for themselves for a week. If we returned to discover no problems, then we would proceed with the experiment.

On to St. Augustine- fitting the theme of bigger not always being better, our gargantuan stone crabs burrowed out of cages we had installed there. Even worse, cages without stone crabs were coming out of the ground because they were not dug in deep enough. The stone crab problem represents another example of why I should always run pilot experiments before attempting anything ambitious. Unfortunately, I have not learned this lesson yet. Or, I seem to periodically forget it.

Because I lacked the time to run such a pilot experiment, I ditched the troublesome stone crabs. We then awoke at dawn for the next three days to re-install cages (see the video below) in an over-kill sort of way. For this task, we took digging deep to a whole new level. Nothing was going to get inside or out of these cages without our permission. You can see how much deeper the cage bottoms extended into the ground by looking at the same cage pre- and post- renovation.

Having weathered the St. Augustine mishaps, we confidently headed back to Jacksonville to assess those cages. Upon arrival, I was subjected to a horrific scene: three days of hard labor undone by high flow conditions.

Note to self: mudflats are firm because flow is too high to allow sediment accumulation.

Stubbornly, I decided to force my will upon Mother Nature by digging cages in deeper and reinstalling them at locations behind marshes that would presumably buffer flow. Lacking the time to test this new cage installation, we immediately installed experimental treatments. This leap of faith was necessary in order to stay on schedule with the NC and GA teams.

Okay- cages up, reefs in, bells and whistles turned on. Afterwards, I raced back across the state to help two interns on their projects. Halfway back across the state and late on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I managed to blow the old lab truck’s transmission. As if getting a tow truck to Lake City at midnight wasn’t hard enough, getting one that would tow our truck and our kayak trailer was highly unlikely. But, taking pity on us, a wonderfully nice tow-truck driver agreed to load the trailer onto our truck.


Meanwhile, team Georgia was also experiencing problems with flow, sedimentation, and misbehaving predators. In short, we were throwing everything at this experiment and making little progress. At this point, ironically, the relative slackers amongst the three teams- the slow-to-start NC team- moved into first place- the horror!

After the passing of one mercifully tranquil week, we headed back to St. Augustine to check on things and collect data on our tile experiment. Interestingly, the experiment was working and we observed some variation in how predators indirectly benefit oysters; the positive effect diminished with latitude.

But then back again to Jacksonville- destroyed cages followed by some extremely colorful language. There should not have been deep pools of water surrounding the cages at dead low tide.

Phil by wrecked cage

Obviously, it was time to cut our losses by not messing around with this site anymore. As a result, we spent the next three days searching all of northern Florida and southern Georgia to find a new ideal study site: suitable to oysters, no quick sand, firm footing and modest flow. After three days of intensive searching, we can confidently claim that such a site does not exist.

After accepting that this experiment could not be conducted in northernmost Florida, we decided to redirect Jacksonville resources to St. Augustine. There we would conduct a similar experiment that focused on a predatory assemblage unique to Florida: stone crab, toadfish, catfish, and crown conchs. So, nine more cages, nine more experimental reefs, and all the associated bells and whistles were established once again. By this time, my crew felt that they could easily serve in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Although things are now going well and we have a much better understanding of how to initiate this type of an experiment, my general ignorance has kept a Florida State University intern in St. Augustine for 7 weeks after agreeing to be there for only two weeks. Ooopsie!

Stay tuned in for a Hanna update on St. Augustine’s crown conchs and a post from Tanya about the summer madness from a technician’s perspective.


David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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The End of an Era

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Randall examines an experiment cage as Robyn looks on.

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Calling a one year experiment an “era” is probably a bit of an over-statement, but the end of our snail field experiment definitely feels significant. Especially for Robyn, who has traveled to St. Joe Bay at least once a week for the past year to count snails and take other data. And also for the Webbs, who were kind enough to let us put cages up in the marsh right in front of their house and then proceed to show up to check on them at odd hours for the last year!  And finally for this blog, because the beginning of the snail experiment was the first thing we documented last summer when we started this project with WFSU.  It’s nice to come full circle.

So why, you may wonder, are we ending things now? Is it simply because one year is a nice round number? Not really, though there is some satisfaction in that. The actual reasons include:

(1) The experiment has now run long enough that if snails were going to have an effect on cordgrass, we should have seen it by now. (At least based on prior studies with these same species in GA.)
(2) In fact, we have seen an effect of periwinkle snails, and in some cages there are very few plants left alive for us to count! (And lots of zeros are generally not good when it comes to data analysis.)
(3) Perhaps the most important reason to end things now:  it’s become increasingly difficult in some cages to differentiate the cordgrass that we transplanted from the cordgrass that is growing there naturally. Being able to tell them apart is critical in order for our data to be accurate.
(4) The results of the experiment have been consistent over the last several months, which increases my confidence that they are “real” and not simply some fluke of timing or season.

And what are the results? As I mentioned above, snails can have a really dramatic effect on cordgrass, most noticeably when our experimental transplant is the only game in town (i.e., all the neighboring plants have been removed). And not surprisingly, cordgrass does just fine in the absence of snails and neighbors – they’re not competing with anyone or being eaten!


Snails also have a pretty strong effect on the experimental cordgrass transplant (compared to when no snails are present) when all of its neighbors are cordgrass.


Most interestingly, snails do not have a big effect on the experimental cordgrass transplant when some of the neighboring plants are needlerush.


This result is consistent with some of the patterns we’ve observed in natural marshes, where cordgrass growing with needlerush neighbors is taller and looks “healthier” than nearby cordgrass growing without needlerush.

Having decimated the plants in the cage, the snails move towards the tallest structure they can reach- a PVC pipe.

But why? Those snails are pretty smart. They generally prefer to climb on the tallest plant around, because it gives them a better refuge at high tide when their predators move into the marsh. (We’ve shown this refuge effect in the lab – fewer snails get eaten by blue crabs  in tanks with some tall plants  than in tanks with all short plants.) Needlerush is almost always taller than cordgrass in the marshes around here, so this preference for tall plants means that snails spend less time on cordgrass when needlerush is around. And finally, less time on cordgrass means less time grazing on cordgrass, so the cordgrass growing with needlerush experiences less grazing pressure.

These results – consumer (snail) effects on cordgrass are lower when cordgrass grows mixed with needlerush – are consistent with theory on the effect of diversity, even though in this case we’re only talking about a “diversity” of 2 plant species.  And they could be important in the recovery or restoration of marsh areas where snails are causing a large reduction in cordgrass biomass.

The one thing we still don’t know with certainty – how do the snails determine which plant is taller??

I guess that’s the beauty of this job, in that there are always more questions to answer.

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

The new documentary, In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear had a segment on the snail experiment.  Watch the full program here.  You can also read Randall’s post from the beginning of the experiment, and watch a video, here.

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

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

Crown Conchs Overrun Saint Augustine Reefs


Scanning the photo, you can see crown conchs crawling about this Saint Augustine reef. Crown conchs are a normal sight on Florida reefs, but not to the extent seen here. David has tasked Hanna Garland with looking into this very localized phenomenon and its relationship with increasing reef failures.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_FX 150Last week I detailed a recent trip to St. Augustine, ending the post with a mention of a side project being embarked upon by my lab there.  Throughout the past year, we’ve noticed that our St. Augustine study site was loaded with tons of crown conchs. Although crown conchs are ubiquitous in Florida, they are abnormally abundant on our St. Augustine reefs and our St. Augustine reefs are mostly dead. All our other sites have relatively healthy looking oyster reefs and few crown conchs.

But a few miles north of our monitoring reefs, we find absolutely no crown conchs and the health of the oysters is great. Because crown conchs, as has been shown by the research of our very own Doc Herrnkind, love eating oysters, it’s easy to conclude that crown conchs have mowed down all the oysters on our monitoring reefs. But why are they restricted only to our monitoring reefs? Is there a predator of conchs present north of reefs but that is absent on our monitoring reefs? Perhaps the environment has changed in a way that killed all of the oysters and the crown conchs are just cleaning up the mess.


Proboscis out (protruding from the bottom of the snail), a crown conch heads towards a clump of oysters. The conch will use its proboscis to pry open the oyster shell and suck out the meat.

Luckily, Hanna has agreed to enter my lab as a graduate student to tackle this research project. So, she spent a number of days collecting coarse-scale data on the spatial extent of this conch-oyster pattern, consulting with locals about when this pattern developed, and talking with an oceanographer about how to learn whether and how the physical environment has lead to this pattern. In a forthcoming post, I’ll let Hanna fill you in on the details of this new project, which we will be implementing quickly. This is really important to the local community because our monitoring reefs and the conch infested area used to be the most productive area in St. Augustine for harvesting oysters and rearing clams. But now, aquaculture leases here have been abandoned and a very large population of crown conchs appears to have taken up residence.

Stay tuned for Hanna’s post later this week, she’ll go into a little more detail on what we’re doing.

David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
On Wednesday, June 29 at 7:30 PM/ET, WFSU-TV premieres the In the Grass, On the Reef full length documentary. David and Randall guide us through the world of coastal predators (like crown conchs). Top predators maintain important ecosystems like salt marshes and oyster reefs- but the manner in which they do this may not be confined to eating prey.  Tune in to find out more!

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


Who am I? Identity In the Grass

Katie Lotterhos FSU Department of Biological Sciences, FSU

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When we look at a salt marsh, we see thousands of stems of cordgrass. But in reality, the coastline may be made up of only a few different genetic individuals.  This is because Spartina can spread by growing clones of itself,  with the exact same genetic code (a genotype). Why does it matter if we know whether or not a salt marsh is made up of one or many different genotypes?  Well, different genotypes will have different abilities to resist pests or disease, or they may be tastier to eat for the little marsh critters like snails and grasshoppers.  Since some genotypes will be better than others in different situations, we care about genetic diversity because it can be a buffer against an uncertain environment.

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Return to the field

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150A sure sign of spring for me is an increase in time in the field. (Robyn and Emily would probably disagree with me, since they have been out in the field regularly throughout the winter!) I have been in the lab or office since December, which feels like a long time, and I’m really looking forward to getting back in the field. I find it is so much easier to come up with new research questions and develop insights into what the animals and plants are doing out there when I’m actually there with them. I guess that makes sense!

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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.