Although the oyster project’s fieldwork has attracted most of the attention on this blog (indeed, it is where most of the action happens), our time at the lab deserves a bit of discussion as well, as much progress on the oyster project also happens behind walls. This is especially the case nowadays, in the winter, when fieldwork is kept to a minimum on account of weather and the general inactivity of animals on the reefs. What better time to catch up on processing the zillions of samples we’d collected over the past many months, but never quite had time to get to.
Labwork is a whole different beast than the energetically-demanding, volatile nature of fieldwork – I wouldn’t go so far as to call labwork boring, but it is often incredibly repetitive, time-consuming, and demanding of extreme patience. It’s certainly not as exciting, sensational, or enjoyable as fieldwork (in my opinion), but it is just as much an integral part of the science, and anyone who goes into research will probably spend much of their time sitting at a bench, repeating the same procedure twenty-thousand times in pursuit of the great dataset (that is, until you hire techs and grad students to do it for you). Yet labwork has an appeal and mystique all of its own that’s not to be overlooked.
Certain tasks in marine biology necessitate learning skills used in commercial seafood. Here, Tanya shucks an oyster to remove the meat and weigh it.
So while David retires to his office and catches up on the uncountable tasks at hand there, I’ve holed up in the lab and plodded steadily through the several hundred samples of ours waiting patiently in the freezer. Lately, this has involved two major tasks. The first was to process the sediment organic matter (SOM) samples from our (and Jeb Byers’s) oyster reefs collected every 6 weeks since August. A total of 640 samples needed to be transferred from bags to aluminum dishes, dried for 3 hours at 105°C to evaporate any water, weighed, combusted for 3 hours at 525°C to incinerate and volatilize any organic material, and reweighed to determine the percent of the sediment composed of organic material. This analysis will allow us to compare how oysters affect the amount of organic material in the sediment across latitude. In case you ever wanted to know, 525°C (977°F) is pretty dang hot, and the smell of burning sediment that wafts down the hall during the first half hour or so in the furnace apparently smells exactly like an electrical fire.
Mmmm... oyster jerky!
My second task was to process samples of oysters we’d collected from our reefs during our intensive August surveys. After thawing them out, this involved measuring the total weight, wet and dry tissue weight, and various shell dimensions of 400 individual oysters. From these data we’ll be able to calculate an oyster condition index (health indicator), which we’ll be able to compare across sites. Obtaining wet and dry tissue mass required removing and weighing the meat (my oyster shucking skills increased greatly after this exercise), and reweighing it after drying for 48 hours at 70°C (this generated some quite odorous and not-all-too-appetizing looking oyster jerky). Between the sediment and oyster samples, I admit I had a monopoly of the marine lab’s drying ovens for a short while. I can say though that sticking your face in a drying oven is a great way to warm up on a cold winter’s day.
There are a variety of ways researchers try to liven up the tedious nature of labwork. Many listen to music or books on tape, or play movies in the background, or chat with labmates if others are around. Sometimes I’ll do these things, but other times I find the quiet monotony of labwork to be rather peaceful. There’s no stress or distractions or real need for thinking – just you, the calipers, the oysters, the datasheet. You kind of get in “the mode” and it can be rather, I don’t know… zen? At least for a little while. It’s a nice contrast to the intensive and unpredictable nature of science in the field.
David Kimbro’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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:
Now that I’ve muddied my hands pulling my shoe out, where’s all that water?
Along 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 KimbroFSU 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 (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.
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
This week’s videos look at Dr. David’s Kimbro’s collaborators in the NSF funded biogeographic oyster study. While he has been the face of the study for On the Reef, he is one member of a team of scientists. Today’s videos feature Dr. Randall Hughes (In the Grass) and Dr. Jon Grabowski. Later this week, we’ll have a short video with Dr. Jeb Byers. Randall and David’s posts accompanying the videos are reminiscences on their early days in marine ecology in North Carolina, where they and their fellow team members met while in school.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Getting my first taste of marine ecology.
In my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, I took a class in marine ecology from Dr. Charles (Pete) Peterson and Dr. Mark Hay.
At the time, I was a double major in biology and public policy analysis, and despite being just a few months from graduation, I was still very uncertain what I was going to do next. So when Pete asked me if I would like to work as a summer research assistant at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences for his graduate student, Jon Grabowski, I accepted with little idea of what I was getting myself into.
Jon’s project involved comparing the value of restored oyster reefs in different locations in the marsh (next to marsh edges, sandwiched between marsh edges and seagrass beds, or isolated on sand flats) as habitat for important fishes and crabs. What that meant in reality was that in the summer of 1997, we used ~2 tons of dead oyster shell to create 12 intertidal oyster reefs in Middle Marsh, NC – largely by carrying the shell in orange baskets from one big pile to the specific places where we needed it.
One of the reefs we built in 1997 on a sand flat, pictured here in 2002.
In the process, I learned to trailer and drive a boat, build 30+ fish traps that involved welding rebar together and dipping the whole contraption in “net dip” (the most disgusting substance known to man), deploy and retrieve those traps and happily (well, at least begrudgingly) handle the blue crabs, toadfish, and other critters that we caught, and various other tasks that made my parents wonder why I needed a B.A. degree for this job. But by the end of the summer, I was hooked!
Jon, before he was Dr. Grabowski.
After that first summer, I returned to work with Jon for 3 more field seasons until starting graduate school myself in 2000. (David and my paths crossed at IMS, working for Jon together in 1999.) During the “off-season” I taught school, first in Mexico and then in NC, because I wanted to be sure that becoming an ecologist was really the thing for me. I love teaching, but I love research even more, and so going to graduate school seemed the logical way to combine the two.
Much like the no-see-um story from Jacksonville, the long hours and hard work involved with Jon’s project generated a lore surrounding that first (and subsequent) years. Here’s just one of my favorite stories from the summer of 1997 –
Dr. Pete Peterson in Middle Marsh, NC.
Once the reefs were created (and lots of stories could be told about that process), the plan was to sample them once a month over consecutive daytime and nighttime high tides. Because we couldn’t sample all of the sites at the same time, this involved 48 hours of effort with only short breaks in between times in the field. The first time attempting this sampling happened to fall the 2 days before I was scheduled to leave to start my job teaching in Mexico – oh, and on my birthday. After day 1, we realized that returning to the lab from our field sites and then going home to get cleaned up before getting some rest was burning lots of valuable sleep time, so we decided that the second night we would camp on one of the barrier islands close to our sites. Jon packed most of the gear, including a giant and heavy cooler, and off we went. Of course, it was the middle of the night when we finished up in the field and drove the boat over to Shackelford Island, and we hadn’t bothered to set up camp earlier in the day. Jon thought he knew of a shortcut to cross over to the ocean side, which had a nice breeze and far fewer mosquitos. Unfortunately, we didn’t find the shortcut immediately, and we ended up carrying the heavy cooler and all of our other gear while swatting and cursing mosquitos for quite a while. About 5 minutes from the beach side of the island (though we didn’t know that at the time), I snapped, announcing to Jon that I was NOT walking any farther and so we better set up camp in that spot. (I had maintained a fairly mild-mannered and easy-going persona all summer, but there was nothing mild about my ultimatum that we stop walking.) I was in better spirits after a few hours of sleep, feeling more than a little chagrined at my outburst when I realized how close we were to the beach, and especially when learned that the primary object in that heavy cooler was a chocolate birthday cake for me! I have since apologized many times, and Jon and I laugh and re-tell that story virtually every time we get together.
Of course, beyond the friendships, funny stories, hard work, and good food, we also learned a heck of a lot about oyster reefs and the animals that live on and around them. That’s why our current collaboration “On the Reef” is so satisfying – it’s a way to return to our roots scientifically, professionally, and personally.
The biogeographic oyster study is funded by the National Science Foundation.
(Editor’s Note. Although David refers to Randall’s participation on this study, her role was not elaborated upon in this video. That will be a part of the next video, on David’s collaborators, as Randall is David’s Co-PI- or Primary Investigator)
Tanya measures a fish caught in a gill net.
It’s been said that research techs are those who do the dirty work in science. Although true in many ways, I love being where the action is, collecting the data, turning ideas into reality. That said, here is some of my perspective on what went into our October trip and what days in the field were like.
A busy field trip like our October sampling push typically takes at least as many days to prepare for as the length of the trip itself. Although the daily blog posts covered our time in action, David and I spent most of the previous couple weeks just planning for this trip so that it could run as smoothly as it did. I feel it worth mentioning the many hours I spent pouring over tide charts and editing and re-editing our complicated schedule so that we could accomplish everything as efficiently as possible, factoring in all manner of time and tidal constraints, travel time, land and sea transportation, overnight stays, and numerous other variables, plus designing it with enough flexibility that we could adjust our plans in the field at a moments notice (and indeed we did). In addition to scheduling I also had to make sure we had all the materials we needed to for our trip, that those materials were all in working order, and that they are all packaged up accordingly and conveniently in our two vehicles. The last thing you want is to be out in the field and realize you’re missing some critical piece of equipment.
As they conduct these initial sampling trips every few months, they keep finding new and interesting species living in and around the reefs. Here, Tanya is taking measurement of one of her favorite finds of this last trip, a striped burrfish.
Out in the field, going to retrieve our traps and nets is always the most exciting for me, since you never know what we’re going to catch, and I was interested to see how the October fish community compared with that of July. We caught a few new fish species in our traps this round, including a beautiful spotfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon ocellatus), juvenile snapper (Lutjanus sp.), and a couple tiny pufferfish (technically striped burrfish, Chilomycterus schoepfi – they were very adorable). Equally exciting was getting to use the new motor on our skiff for the first time at our sites. Although noisy and bizarre-looking, it performed admirably in shallow water, as it was designed to. At least in terms of temperature and humidity, conditions on the reefs were considerably more pleasant for us than during the summer. It was wonderful not to be wiping sweat from your face every 10 minutes. The dramatic increase in the no-see-um population at dawn and dusk was not so pleasant however, as David has duly noted. The dawn low tide at Jacksonville brought the worst swarms we’d ever encountered in the field. Incredibly irritating both physically and mentally, they made work nearly impossible, and forced me to spend the subsequent week covered in uncountable numbers of ravenously itchy welts.
Despite its exotic look, the spotfin butterfly fish is a native of both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida.
When not out on the reefs, there was rarely a moment when something didn’t need to be done – whether filtering water samples, rinsing gear, or (most frequently) extracting spat. Our only breaks seemed to be for the necessities of eating, showering, sleeping, and making coffee. (For David, coffee appears to rank just below data and samples in terms of his most valued possessions in the field.) Our biggest and most time-consuming challenge was whether we could get all of the spat extracted and tiles made for our predator-exclusion experiment in the time allotted between netting and trapping. The process of isolating spat was incredibly tedious to say the least, and particularly frustrating when, after you’ve been working on a spat for several minutes, your tool slips and the spat gets crushed, or it flies across the patio, never to be seen again. You couldn’t help but feel the spat always picked the most inconvenient places to settle. It was also quite a messy process, with water and oyster bits flying everywhere and various crabs skittering across the counter. The oysters also love to slice your fingers open during the few moments when you neglect to wear gloves. Yet in spite of the tedium, we couldn’t help noticing new and interesting critters living amongst the oysters as we broke them apart. For instance, we noticed considerably more porcelain crabs (Petrolisthes sp.) and Boonea impressa (a small, white snail that parasitizes oysters) than we’d seen in previously collected oyster samples. We also found an oyster pea crab (Pinnotheres ostreum), which lives on and steals food from the gills of oysters, and a number of dark brown cylindrical mussels (Lithophaga bisulcata) that bore into the calcareous shells of oysters. It always amazes me how many different animals can be found living within the structurally complex habitat created by species like oysters.
Young oyster spat, beginning their new careers in science.
I remember on one of the last days of our trip, I kayaked out to our St. Augustine reefs for a final service and check while David finished up the dremeling. I remember looking upon reef #5, seeing our newly deployed, spat-covered tiles and cages, our cleaned tidal data logger housing, and our newly replaced spat stick, arranged so neatly on our marked reef, and feeling delighted at our accomplishment, knowing how much effort has gone into this setup. I remembered that in my position it’s easy to get sucked into the details, but it’s equally important to remember the big picture, and how this research will contribute to our greater understanding of oyster reef ecology.
After our field trip, as we recover from battle wounds and wait for the mud to work its way out from under our fingernails, work on the oyster project continues at the lab. For me this has meant entering lots of data and starting to process our many samples. Before you know it though, it’s time to start to preparing for our next journey onto the reefs and the adventures that await.
The Kimbro, Hughes, et al. biogeographic oyster study is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The following is the first of three or so videos on the big October oyster trip. In this one, you get a long busy day in the field condensed into two minutes (it’s much less exhausting that way). We’ll have videos in the next couple of weeks on David’s co-collaborators (including video of the Georgia/ S. Carolina team and all the sharks they caught) and a video on David’s own team.
The "October Oyster Push" had many objectives, but none took as much time to implement than the tile experiment. Seeing how these baby oysters- spat- grow over the next few months will give David an idea how oysters typically fare at each reef over the course of their lives.
I spent most of this past week feeling pretty darn good about having just finished our October sampling and experimental objectives out on the oyster reefs. Of course, this glow continued into the weekend as my football team pulled out a W in Tallahassee.
But back to the science. Although Rob chronicled each day of our crazy road trip, I want to relive it once more just to give the trip from my perspective. So, here are my top-ten thoughts:
Number 1: Planning the details of the road trip (housing, which team is going where and when) as well as figuring out how to set up the tile experiment (see video) was pretty stressful. Thank goodness I had Tanya around to bounce scheduling ideas off of. Because I kept chaning my mind, I think Tanya made like 6 different versions of our schedule.
Number 2: I talked the NC and SC/GA teams into doing the aforementioned experiment with oyster spat to examine how actual predation and the fear of being eaten affects oysters up and down the coast. I successfully convinced the teams partly because I emphatically claimed that the additional work load would only be five hours of more work at each site. Well, I got that wrong. It was probably triple that estimate. That’s one of my flaws: I always underestimate how long research tasks take, which is bad because you constantly feel behind as a result of being over-scheduling. Rule of thumb: always multiply my work estimates by at least 2.
Number 3: I never want to see a dremel again. With dremel in hand one evening at Saint Augustine, I had only extracted ¼ the spat I needed for the experiment but the time spent on this task had already surpassed my previous estimate. That’s when coffee and the ability to lose yourself in the task become extremely important. I guess I took it one oyster spat at a time.
(L to R) Tanya, Hanna, and Cristina pick up the slack while David dremels away back at the lab space.
Number 4: I could not have lost myself in the task of setting up the experiment if it hadn’t been for Tanya, Hanna and Cristina. Knowing that they were fully trained to carry out the sampling objectives, I did not have to busy myself with those numerous tasks, such as setting gill nets and traps (and retrieving the catch), taking sediment and water samples, etc. In fact, after finishing the sampling objectives and follow-up lab work, they would immediately begin helping me with the experiment by cleaning adult oysters and identifying spat for me to extract with the dremel. With that help, I was able to focus solely on dremeling.
Number 5: Dremeling 1080 spat out of adult oyster shell stinks. Did I already say that? Well, this task deserves two spots on the top-ten list. In tact, I probably attempted to extract over 2,000 oysters because I would often slip with the dremel and accidentally kill the oyster spat that I had spent five or so minutes on.
Hardhead and sail catfish seem to be the dominant predator of the Florida Gulf sites. By eating mud crabs that predate oysters, these fish perform an important function on oyster reefs.
Number 6: we couldn’t have asked for better weather. In fact, I think there were some temperature records being set. Despite these warmer than usual temperatures, there was about ½ the diversity and number of predatory fish on our reefs. So, going against my expectations, these Florida sites are experiencing some seasonality in the assemblage of predators. Interestingly, all teams were catching red drum on their reefs; guess it’s their time of year. The red drum mostly had smaller fish in their stomachs. The SC/GA team was still catching lots of sharks. And catfish was still the most abundant predator on our reefs. Those slimy things are definitely major players on southern oyster reefs because they had lost of mud crabs (who eat oysters) in their guts. Final detail about the Florida sites is that my northern locations (Alligator Harbor on Gulf and Jacksonville area on Atlantic) had more predatory fishes than did the more southern sites in Florida…. intriguing.
Number 7: We had to change plans at the end of the week and this mid-course change actually went smoothly. This change came about because the housing space near our Jacksonville site was not conducive for setting up the tile experiment. Luckily, Hanna and Cristina ventured up to Jacksonville to figure all of this out for me. This “divide and conquer” strategy allowed Tanya and me to finish up the sampling and experimental objectives in Saint Augustine, while Hanna and Cristina began sampling in Jacksonville to keep us on schedule. And rather than resting up in Jacksonville, Hanna and Cristina ripped up oyster habitat and drove it back down to Saint Augustine. They looked pretty rough upon that later return to Jacksonville. But after a good dinner and a few hours of sleep, their oyster delivery allowed us to work on the materials for the Jacksonville experiment in a much better laboratory setting.
Number 8: Team morale and will to finish objectives hit a low point once we reached Jacksonville. The lodging for the first evening was haunted with cockroaches: this is Hanna’s kryptonite. Luckily, Tanya whipped us up some good pasta to help keep our minds off of the roaches. The next morning, cockroaches began to seem not so bad. When we got to the boat-launch and found there to be no wind, I knew it was trouble because this site had the reputation for being particularly buggy. So, we headed into the mouth of our creek and hit the first reef. Not too bad… actually, no fish in the nets. Only a few bugs and two free hands to swipe them away. But as we ventured further into the belly of the creek/bug hell and found tons of fish in our nets, I began to worry about mutiny. As I was exhorting the crew to extract tons of fish from the next set of nets, I realized that freeing this many fish would take twice as long because we needed to spend an equal amount of time cursing the no-see’ums and keep them out of our ears and noses; kind of hard to do with fish in your hands. While taking fire from the no-see’ums, we then began sustaining additional injuries from other natural agents. I suffered my first good-sized oyster cut. Hanna got her finger nearly cut off by a large stone crab. For the pain finale, a decent sized catfish stabbed my hand with the barb of its dorsal fin. I don’t blame it, but daggum that hurt. At this point, the unpleasantness was almost comical. Note to self: buy hats with bug nets to combat no-see’ums.
Number 9: All of the pain and stress of that week is now good fodder for the lab to laugh about and bond over. That’s one of the perks of conducting research as a team. And that’s one of the reasons why Big Jon, Randall and I are still collaborating.
David walks away from the tiles he and his team spent so much time putting together. He won't know how successful the experiment was until he travels back to these sites.
Number 10: Now that we have all caught up on sleep, have relived our stories, and have begun to look at the data, I now stress about whether the tile experiment will actually work. Like most experiments I conduct, I put a lot of effort into something that has a 50% chance of not succeeding. For example, the spat that I extracted and adhered to tiles may have been overheated by the dremel/extraction process…are they dead already? And then, oh boy…what if the glue doesn’t hold? That’s what really keeps me up at night.
(Farthest to nearest) Hanna, Tanya, and Cristina perform some of the more glamorous work of this trip- cracking oysters apart and finding spat (oyster babies). David needed everyone on his team to perform, or this week would be wasted.
A while back, I was talking to Randall or David, I forget which one, and they were telling me about building a research crew. Obviously you need people who have the knowledge and skills to do what needs to be done- from identifying fish to driving a boat, or setting a gill net. But just as important, they said, was that you had people you could get along with, since you practically live with them sometimes.
Weeks like this one are where building the team pays off. When you’re getting bitten up by gnats on an oyster reef at 6:45 in the morning, you don’t want a crew member sniping at another about losing a fish out of the gill net. David remarked to me that the morale of this team had stayed strong, despite the schedule always changing and everyone having to shoulder more of the load while David got the tiles ready. They did a lot of work on their own, and made it possible to get everything done even as plans shifted.
On a day like today, it was good that David has the crew he has.
A swarm of gnats hovers over the oyster reef water.
6:45 AM– Retrieved fish from nets, deployed traps.
After a night of battling cockroaches in their “haunted” house, they might have been happier to be out on oyster reefs at this early hour. They might have, had it not been for the no see-ums. They were getting eaten alive, which made it hard to work. And it got worse from there, as if the universe decided to pile it on in this last day.
As early as it was, the birds had gotten to their fish before they did and there were no stomachs to examine. And then there were the injuries. David cut his finger on a catfish spine, and then, within about ten minutes, a stone crab got a hold of Hanna’s finger and inflicted some pain. They’re both okay. Their truck, however, is a little worse off.
Banged up over the course of the week, the crew- and their truck- are ready to come home.
When they got back, they glued spat onto tiles one more time to deploy this afternoon.
3:00 PM– Tanya, Hanna, and Cristina retrieved the traps and set the tiles.
7:00 PM– The girls headed back to the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab. When they got there, they cleaned all of their gear, even though it was late. They figured that it was better to wash the salt off sooner than later.
So that was the week. They’ll go back to each of the sites about every six weeks, though it won’t always be this intensive. David, Jeb (SC/ GA), and Jon (NC) will start to see seasonal patterns in the fish that they find- when do certain fish tend to show up on what reef? They’ll check in on their tiles and take photos, and over the months the photos should play like a flip book in showing the growth of the oysters on each site. They’ll gain understanding, and they’ll run into more road blocks. They have about two-and-a-half years left on this study, so while Thursday was the last day of the push, they’re nowhere near the end of the road.
Assuming no one tampers with them, we should be able to watch these oysters grow up over the next year.
Check back in a couple of weeks for wrap-up posts from David and Tanya.
Tide Times and height (ft.) for Jacksonville, October 28, 2010
Low- 6:44 AM (0.3)
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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Wednesday, October 27- Finish tiles, go to Jacksonville
When not losing sleep over whether the tile experiment will work, David dreams of making the tiles. They'll be back in six weeks to check on the progress of the baby oysters they set upon the reefs.
Walking down the hall of our dorm at 7 AM, I heard the familiar sound of the dremel from across the street in the lab area. This time the whole crew was there- Tanya, Hanna, and Cristina cleaning and separating oysters and David Kimbro slicing shells into similarly sized pieces. The Jacksonville oysters they’re processing have an entirely different kind of predator than the Marineland oysters have in crown conchs. The Jax shells were speckled with little greenish spots- these are boring sponges. They bore holes through the shell and take up residence within it. The specks were making it harder to spot spat.
I was thinking about predators when I was driving today, in particular the crown conchs here. A1A runs alongside the intercoastal waterway where the oyster reefs are. Driving north towards the Matanzas Inlet, which is the northern boundary of the crown conch problem, there is a bridge under construction. While getting some footage of oyster reefs earlier, I noticed how close many of the reefs are to the road and its runoff. Overall, the area is more heavily settled than the Forgotten Coast sites where David and Randall do their studies. This drive I took today put a slightly different light on the work they do. When I’m shooting on the reefs, or in the salt marshes, it sometimes seem like a different world. But it isn’t, really. Not that this sudden and very focused problem may not have an entirely natural cause. But there are a lot of potential factors in play outside of trophic cascades and water salinity.
Those innocuous looking spots are trying to kill the oyster and take over its shell.
2:00 PM– Hanna, and Cristina drove to Jacksonville to deploy nets at low tide. Cristina found a deep spot in the mud and sank in waist deep, which is a concern at this site. The new boat was purchased specifically for this site, as it’s a long kayak trip in somewhat treacherous waters.
So far, so good for the Saint Augustine spat tiles.
4:30 PM– David and Tanya finish making the Jacksonville tiles and spend about two hours cleaning up the lab space. Tanya kayaked out to check on the St. Augustine tiles they deployed yesterday before heading to Jax. David said he had lost sleep last night over whether the tiles would still be there, or if the glue would even hold the spat onto the tile. Jon Grabowski (NC team leader) has a site with easy public access. This morning he showed up to find his sites being harvested, the tiles already removed. So you can see where David would worry. But, at least over the first night, the SA tiles were fine.
David and Tanya joined the rest of the team in Jacksonville for another awesome Tanya-cooked meal. I feel I did her a disservice yesterday by not mentioning the zucchini bread and double chocolate biscotti she made, so I’ll do so now. Yum! Perhaps On the Reef needs a cooking segment. Everyone is now settled into a house they all think is haunted. Hanna put together a makeshift tub on their screened-in porch to keep the spat alive to deploy tomorrow. One more day to go…
On Thursday, the October oyster push concludes and the FL, GA/ SC, and NC teams will start looking at the data and continue establishing patterns.
Tide Times and height (ft.) for Jacksonville, October 27, 2010
Low- 5:56 AM (0.2)
High- 12:25 PM (5.7)
Low- 6:42 PM (0.5)
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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Tuesday, October 26- Tile Team heads to Jacksonville
The whirring sound, the smell of calcium carbonate dust, the warmth of his face behind the mask and goggles- this is the stuff of David Kimbro's dreams.
The WFSU crew stayed the night in St. Augustine to accompany both the Net/ Fish and Tile teams when they headed out at sunrise. After breakfast, I went out to the lab space (we’re all staying at a research facility very near the reefs they study), and David Kimbro was there, before the sun had made its way out, separating shards of shell with spat on them. He’d missed all of the field work here up to that point so that this experiment could work. Until this afternoon, it was all I had seen him do here. If he was able to focus in on this one aspect of this large an undertaking, it is because Hanna and Tanya have been able to operate independently and pick up the slack. By the time he actually made it into the field, David followed Tanya’s lead.
Also working hard on this trip are my poor sneakers. I have an old pair that I designated for my work on this project, shoes I knew I would never wear for anything else. The reefs in Cedar Key and St. Augustine have torn them up. I keep stepping in soft mud that hides oysters, or stray clumps cloaked by muddy water. It might be time to invest in boots.
There's nothing like the smell of dead fish in the morning.
7:30 AM– Hanna, Tanya, and Cristina went out to retrieve the catch from the gill nets, take sediment samples, retrieve the data loggers, and take some fish stomachs (how else would you know what the predators were eating?). They also replaced the spat sticks, which were still only attracting barnacles. Tanya noticed, however, that spat would settle on the rebar below the stick.
A couple of Environmental Scientists from the St. Johns River Water Management System agency kayaked up at some point to watch the proceedings. They are working with David’s lab to determine why these once commercially viable reefs were overrun and depleted by crown conchs. The problem seems to be very localized, occurring between Ponce Inlet in New Smyrna Beach and Matanzas Inlet. David is hoping for more “spinoff projects” like this one, in which he and his lab can use applied science to help specific reef systems.
And while we’re on the topic of predatory snails, Here’s that pic of the Atlantic Oyster Drill:
Crown conch, tulip snails, and oyster drills heavily populate these Marineland, FL reefs.
2:30 PM– Hanna and Cristina headed to Jacksonville to begin removing clumps of reef with Jacksonville spat on them. But first they were to inspect the house they were renting to see if there was a suitable area to make their Jacksonville spat tiles. That process involves keeping oysters in large tubs of water, prying shells off of the clump, and using a dremel to make the pieces somewhat uniform in size. If I was renting someone a house, I wouldn’t want them doing that in my bathroom. Hanna determined that the house did not have a workable area, causing a shift in their plans. Hanna and Cristina now had to bring the reef segments back to St. Augustine to process. Instead of deploying nets in Jacksonville Wednesday morning, they’ll have to do this in the afternoon after processing the spat all day. And instead of finishing with Jacksonville on Thursday morning, they’ll be there all day (causing David to make his three hour drive home at night).
5:00 PM– David and Tanya retrieve the small fish traps. A couple of the fish they catch are pretty colorful, I suspect they’re something that once lived in a saltwater aquarium. They also deployed the tiles into which so much effort had been expended. It’s a major part of this study, and David is happy to get started on it just five months after that first day in Alligator Harbor. And it’s still early enough in this three year study that they can tweak the experiment and try it again next year (experiments of this nature don’t always work the first time).
After all the work was done, Tanya made a tasty four-bean vegetarian chili, and everyone enjoyed a relaxed dinner before convening again at 7:30 AM to process more spat.
David finally makes it out into the field.
Tide Times and height (ft.) for Saint Augustine, October 26, 2010
Low- 8:oo AM (0.3)
High- 2:17 PM (5.2)
Low- 8:41 PM (0.7)
Tide Times and height (ft.) for Jacksonville, October 25, 2010
High- 5:56 PM (0.5)
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David Kimbro’s crew has been split into two teams, the Net/Trap team (N/T) and the Tile team (TI). For a closer look at how David’s team nets and traps larger fish and crabs, click here. To learn more about what the Tile team will be doing, click here. And if you click On the Reef under categories in the sidebar, you can track David’s progress over the course of this study.
Monday, October 25- Both teams in Saint Augustine
That grey spot (dead center) on the shell is spat. After landing on existing shells, they'll build their own and expand the clump.
When I got to St. Augustine, David was chiseling out shards of shell containing oyster spat (baby oysters) from clumps so that he could glue them onto tiles, as he described in Friday’s post. I got a good look at what spat actually was. You can see it in the photo here, basically a small oyster with no shell, seeking out a hard surface (often another oyster’s shell) upon which to settle. David stayed behind doing that as the rest of his crew, and our crew, piled into the boat for this evening’s activities.
This new experiment- placing tiles with the same number of oyster recruits at all sites on every reef across the study- will give them a more precise picture of how young oysters survive at each site. It also means a lot of extra work, as the spat that goes on the tiles has to be from the specific location to be entirely accurate- spat is harvested one day, immediately chiseled off and made into tiles and placed on the reef, in the span of about two days. And this is in addition to the other sampling and trapping. The previous tile method worked fairly well for the NC and SC/GA teams, but for the sake of being consistent, they’ve also had to adapt this method (while cursing David Kimbro’s name).
Crown conchs in St. Augustine making a snack of an oyster.
As previously noted on this blog, the reefs did have plenty of crown conchs crawling on them. David and Tanya have also started noticing Atlantic Oyster Drills, a smaller snail we don’t see in the Gulf. I’ll look for some tomorrow and get a photo or two up.
8:00 AM– Hanna and Randall (N/T team) retrieved the nets that they set last night in Cedar Key. This is low tide work, as that’s when it’s best to empty the nets. They got to their first reef after the vultures did, losing a bit of their catch but still able to identify some species from the fish heads left behind.
1:00 PM– Hanna headed to Saint Augustine and Randall headed home. As Hanna was gassing up the truck and boat, an elderly gentlemen circled the boat, in awe of David’s creation. Eventually, he said, “sweet boat.”
A sweet boat.
5:00 PM– Deploy nets, take water samples, and reference water level. The two teams combined activities that would have kept them out past dark, and finished just as the sun was setting. They then helped David glue spat onto tiles for another hour or so before heading out to dinner.
That was the day. As you see, field work involves a lot of rethinking (as in the tile experiment), thinking on your feet, dealing with circumstances (vultures eating your catch), and coming up with unusual solutions (refitting your boat in a way some might find strange). It’s pretty late now (as I type this, even though I plan to post this in the morning). Time to head to bed so that I can get up and shoot that sunrise.
Tide Times and height (ft.) for Cedar Key, October 24, 2010
Low- 10:oo AM (-0.3)
Tide Times and height (ft.) for Saint Augustine, October 25, 2010
High- 1:35 PM (5.3)
Low- 8:41 PM (0.6)
We’d love to hear from you! Leave your comments and questions below: