If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll realize that we often talk about similar research questions or ideas in the context of different projects. As David mentioned in his description of the Baymouth Bar project, this overlap is usually intentional: as ecologists, we’re interested not only in the specific habitats that we study, but also in the underlying factors that affect these habitats and the valuable services that they provide to we humans.
It may appear at times that we’ve been covering a diverse array of topics, and while this is true, all of these topics are interconnected- a web of topics centered around a couple of central themes. The diagram below is the map that shows where every post-topic fits into these central themes. Even the artists, writers, and photographers we occasionally feature have their place amongst ecological processes like sedimentation and the non-consumptive effects of predators. Every post from here on out will have one of these icons on it- if you don’t know what the icon means, just click on it and you’ll be back at this figure with an explanation:
Dozens of different mollusk species interact within a relatively small area at Bay Mouth Bar, from all manner of bivalves to the predatory snails that eat them (and each other).
As soon as you arrive to BMB, it is easy to imagine and feel the same curiosity and fascination that Robert Paine brimmed with when he first immersed himself in the sand bar fifty years ago.
If someday you have the opportunity to visit BMB at low tide, then you would receive much pleasure in looking at 40000 m2 of sand, full of awesome critters! Twenty minutes by kayak, that’s it!
Since I started working at FSU’s marine lab, I have frequently cast longing looks at a local study system that hasn’t been examined in over 50 years. Back in the 1960s, the world’s most famous ecologist (Bob Paine) was a post-doctoral researcher working at FSU’s Marine Lab. It was at this time and place where he began developing some of the concepts that would transform the field of ecology. Continue reading →
David's collaborators, from left to right- Dr. Jeb Byers, Dr. Mike Piehler, Dr. Jon Grabowski, and Dr. Randall Hughes.
As you can see from the video that summarized our efforts over 2010, it was a busy 6 months of research. After taking a great break during the holidays, the entire oyster team (Jon = Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Mike = University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jeb = University of Georgia, Randall = Florida State University and me) met for a long weekend to figure out what we accomplished and where we are going in the future.
You might think that our 2011 research plans should already be set given that we received funding. Well, we did receive funding to carry out some outlandish field experiments in 2011, but these experiments were dreamed up in our offices and may not address the most ecologically relevant questions for our system. Checking in with the monitoring data is probably the best way to determine if our planned experiments were on target or if they needed to be adjusted and hopefully simplified!
Prior to the oyster summit last weekend, I hounded all of the research teams for all of their data. Given the huge volume of data and everyone’s busy schedules with teaching classes and other research projects, this was quite the task. Once Tanya meshed all the data together (also not a simple task), I then moved on to the next task of analyzing our data.
Well, the initial excitement quickly turned into a stomach churning feeling of….where the heck do I begin? Similar to the way that too many prey can reduce the effectiveness of predators, the data were swamping me…I was overwhelmed and the draining hourglass wasn’t helping (people were flying into town in two days…yikes!).
After multiple cups of coffee, the anxiety passed and I decided to revisit some basic questions:
David's team used gill nets to catch the larger fish around the reefs, many of which are top predators in that habitat.
(1) With the gill nets, we obtained predatory fish data. So how do the abundance and biomass of these fishes vary across latitude? And does this pattern change with season (i.e., summer versus fall)?
(2) Then I thought back to the fond memories of ripping up oyster habitat to check out the abundance of things that consume oysters (e.g., mud crabs). Oh…the memory of that work gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling; I bet Tanya, Hanna, Linda and everyone else that helped feel the same way! How do the abundances of these things change across latitude? Are there larger crabs up north or down south? How does the mud crab picture mesh with the predatory fish picture?
This spat stick is made of calcium carbonate, the same substance as oyster shell, and is ridged to simulate the ridges in those shells. That makes it an attractive landing spot for oyster spat (larval oysters), which tend to settle on oyster shells.
(3) Working our way down the food web and sticking with the oyster samples we ripped up back in August, how do oyster densities and oyster size change across latitude and how do these patterns mesh with the mudcrab and predatory fish data?
(4) Finally, I wanted to revisit the data from our instrumentation to see how temperature and salinity changed across latitude and with season, as well as the data from our spat sticks to see how oyster recruitment differed.
It’s pretty amazing that six months of work can be summarized so quickly into four topics. Well, I kept hitting the coffee and got all of these data worked up in time for the first portion of our oyster summit. Surprisingly, all inbound flights arrived on time and we all assembled last Friday to go over the data. I’ll briefly lift the research curtain to illustrate what our data looked like:
The Georgia reef gill nets trapped a lot of sharks. Here Dr. Jeb Byers is removing blue crabs (also an oyster reef predator) from shark bellies. The trapping done on these reefs is clarifying the food web for these habitats.
(1) Although we predicted predator abundance to increase at lower latitudes, predator abundance and the number of different predators peaked in Georgia/South Carolina. This is because lots of the species we have in Florida were also in Georgia. And, Georgia has lots of sharks! Needless to say, Jeb’s crew has been the busiest during gillnet sampling. Jon and Mike’s crew have had it pretty easy (no offense)! The workload reduced for everyone in the fall, but the differences across latitude stayed relatively the same. The really cool result was the pattern that hardhead catfish are extremely important and the most abundant predatory fish on Florida reefs; I love those slimy things.
(2) Interestingly, mudcrab biomass peaked up north where predatory fishes were less abundant.
(3) And the abundance of large, market size oysters was highest where predatory fish were most abundant (GA/SC).
(4) Amazingly, we all did a good job selecting oyster reefs with equivalent salinities (this can vary a lot just within one estuary) and temperature was the same across all of our sites until December….instrumentation up north got covered in ice! Glad I was assigned the relatively tropical reefs in Florida. Finally, oyster recruitment in NC and Florida appears to proceed at a trickle while that of GA/SC is a flood-like situation during the summer.
A month after first being deployed, Tanya and Hanna inspect an Alligator Harbor tile. You can see that some of the oysters have definitely started growing, but also that some of the spat became unglued. When they run the experiment again, they'll use a different adhesive more suitable for a marine environment.
After we all soaked that in, we then talked about the tile experiment. While these data were really cool (mortality presumably due to mudcrabs was lowest where predatory fish were most abundant = GA), we worried about being able to tease apart the effects of flow, sedimentation, and predation. Unfortunately, this experiment seems to uphold my record with experiments: they never work the first time. We’ll probably repeat this in fall of 2011 with a much better design to account for flow and sedimentation.
Before breaking for a nice communal dinner at my place, Mike summarized the nutrient cycling (sediment) data that we have been collecting. In short, having lots of living oysters really promotes de-nitrification processes and our sampling picked this up.
Putting this all together, it looks like there are latitudinal patterns in fish predators that may result in mudcrab density and size patterns. Together, these may help account for latitudinal patterns in oysters (highest in GA). This all matters because more oysters = more denitrification = healthier estuarine waters.
END DAY 1
On day 2 of the summit, we worked through what made us happy about the monitoring data, what things we could add on to make us happier, and that we should continue this monitoring through the summer of 2011. This actually took all morning.
On day 2, the oyster summit moved into the more comfortable location of the Marine Lab guest house.
After a quick lunch break, we then reconvened in another room with a better view (nice to change up the scenery) to go over how we should experimentally test the linkages I mentioned above. This is where the saw blade of productivity met a strong wood knot. Personally, I became horribly confused, fatigued and was utterly useless. This resulted in lots of disagreement on how to proceed and possibly a few ruffled feathers. But nothing that some good food and NFL playoff football couldn’t cure.
After taking in a beautiful winter sunset over the waters off the lab, we ditched the work and began rehashing old and funny stories about each other.
Amazingly, we awoke the next morning and fashioned together a great experimental design that we will implement beginning June 2011. To Jeb’s disappointment, this will not involve large sharks, but we will get to play with catfish!
But now it’s time to prepare for our winter fish and crab sampling. It will be interesting to see what uses these reefs during the dark and cold of winter!
Thanks for following us during 2010, and please stick around for 2011 as I’m sure things will get really interesting as we prepare for our large field experiment.
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Emily and Robyn setting up yet another tank experiment that I've dreamed up. (Thanks to Nancy Smith for the pic!)
Because of the big focus on oysters over the last month, it may seem as if we haven’t been doing anything “In the grass”. We’ve been busy, though, trying to squeeze in a few additional surveys and experiments in November before it gets cold enough that the animals stop eating (or eating very much, I should say) and the plants stop growing. For a while there, I was coming up with so many end of season ideas that I’m pretty sure my crew hated to see me coming! We just did finish up before the winter weather arrived (early) in December. (More on what it’s like working in this cold weather in future posts.)
We actually missed the opportunity to do one of our planned studies involving grasshoppers – there was a cold snap two nights before we went in the field to get the hoppers, and they were nowhere to be found. Those data will have to wait until next spring when the grasshoppers turn up again!
Snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems in the field.
A tasty snack for a periwinkle snail?
I’ve mentioned before on the blog that we noticed lots of snails climbing on cordgrass reproductive stems this fall. In collaboration with David and his team, we visited marsh sites along the Panhandle to see if our observations would be supported with rigorously collected data. So far, so good!
The trusty tank set-up at FSUCML.
We also started a series of experiments in our trusty tanks at the FSU marine lab to tease apart why snails may have this preference: Do the snails simply like that the reproductive stems are taller than regular stems? Or do the reproductive stems “taste” better because of greater nutrient content? Does it matter if predators are present or not? The preliminary results suggest that they like the reproductive stems, regardless of whether they are taller or not. In January, we’ll head into the lab to do the tests for nutrient content that should help us to tease apart why that may be.
2. Does needlerush provide a better predation refuge than cordgrass?
Needlerush (center patch) is typically much taller than cordgrass (surrounding area) in St. Joe Bay
Last fall I did a tank experiment to look at whether snails prefer to climb on another marsh plant species, needlerush (Juncus roemerianus), and whether this preference increased snail survival when predators were around. The results were interesting, but as usual, the first round of the experiment created additional questions that required more work. In November we started a similar experiment, again in the tanks at the marine lab, looking at snail climbing behavior on needlerush and cordgrass in the presence and absence of the snail’s nemesis, the blue crab.
Needlerush is naturally taller than cordgrass, so to test if this difference in height can explain snail behavior, we “experimentally manipulated” (in other words, used scissors to cut the needlerush down to a shorter height) needlerush height: some tanks have naturally tall needlerush, some have needlerush that is on average the same height as the cordgrass, and some have needlerush that is shorter than the cordgrass. Add a blue crab to half of the tanks, and voilà, the experiment is underway!
It’s a bit ironic that each of the experiments we recently finished converged on a similar idea – snails appear to prefer to climb on taller plants. Considering that the taller the plant, the farther they can climb away from predators in the water, it makes sense. The true question is to figure out whether and why it matters that the snails do this. If they climb on reproductive stems, are fewer cordgrass seeds produced? What will that mean for next year’s crop of cordgrass? Also, if snails spend a lot of time hanging out on needlerush to avoid predators, does that mean they don’t eat as much cordgrass? Knowing things as seemingly arcane as which plant a snail prefers to climb on can help us predict and manage the overall abundance and productivity of cordgrass, and the salt marsh in general. And of course, the field work and experiments are fun! Especially when you get to wrestle with blue crabs…
Here are some photos of periwinkle snails in Randall’s latest tank experiments:
Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.