Video: Critters galore at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Gulf Specimen Marine Lab founder Jack Rudloe feeding nurse sharks.
If there’s one thing we have learned in 3-plus years of doing this project, it’s that everything eats blue crabs. If you’ve watched our videos over the years, you’ve seen a gull eating one on Saint George Island. You’ve seen (and heard) a loggerhead turtle crunch into one. And in the video above, two octopi wrestle for the tasty treat at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, Florida (That turtle shot was taken there as well, a few months back). Lab founder Jack Rudloe spent some time with us, feeding sharks, hermit crabs, and various fish species. It gave us a great chance to see many of the species that we cover in this blog, and many that we don’t, in action. Continue reading →
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 →
(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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The photo above is my work computer’s desktop picture. Most of the time, when people see it, I find that they had no idea what an oyster reef looked like. One coworker thought it was a muddy cabbage patch. To be honest, until I first stepped on one for this project, I wouldn’t have known a reef from a pile of rocks. And, like a lot of people, I love eating the things- right out of the shell with a little grit and juice. That’s the disconnect we sometimes have between the food we eat and from where it comes. So it occurred to me that, while we’ve been talking these last few months about the complex relationships between predators and prey on the reef, it might be helpful to get back to oyster basics. Over the following weeks, we’ll cover various topics (like why subtidal oysters are harvested more often than intertidal ones like those up there). We’ll start with what it’s actually like out on a reef, and what you’d see there.
As Dr. David Kimbro’s research assistant, I help out with all aspects of the biogeographic oyster project in the field and at the lab. David, myself, and Evan Pettis (an intern from FSU) have returned from our big sampling effort to characterize the predator community on the oyster reefs at our chosen field sites. Over the course of a productive yet exhausting week, we successfully deployed and retrieved nets and traps at Alligator Harbor, Cedar Key, and St. Augustine and found very interesting differences in the abundance and diversity of fish species between sites. St. Augustine had by far the greatest diversity of large fish species, including redfish, snapper, toadfish, flounder, jack, ladyfish, bluefish, and menhaden. At Cedar Key and Alligator Harbor we caught longnose gar, a fascinating and very ancient fish with extremely hard scales and a long toothy snout. The largest fish we encountered were black drum, which we only captured at Cedar Key. Pinfish, hardhead catfish, and striped mullet were present at all of our sites, although in varying abundances.
Although we’ve busied ourselves this summer by selecting research sites and practicing various aspects of our sampling program, we have still not collected any ‘real’ data concerning the objectives of our biogeographic oyster project. Well, this post will be short because as I write this we are hectically preparing to begin said research. Coincidentally, tropical storm Bonnie has also decided to begin her work in the Gulf at the same time!
See David and his crew in action, and see what animals are on Alligator Harbor reefs.
The title of this blog (a sports metaphor) is how my teacher first introduced me to marine ecology. For our oyster project, this essentially means that we need to establish who is on the oyster reefs before we can begin to make connections among predators, oysters, and their water filtration services….as well as (unfortunately) the impacts of oil.
So far, we’ve identified the organisms on the bottom rung of our food web (think of it has a pyramid): oysters, clams, amphipods, and polychaetes on the bottom rung of the food web and mud crabs and snapping shrimp on the next higher rung of the food web. Our goal this week was to begin quantifying who is at the top of this food pyramid. To do this, we deployed crab traps, bait-fish pots, and gill nets onto each of our reefs during low tide. Following the ensuing flood tide, we returned the next day to count our catch and then promptly release everyone.
the hardhead catfish was the most abundant species trapped during this survey
But after running out of fresh water to drink and profusely perspiring all the moisture out of my body while out on the reefs, it dawned on me that nature of this catch is likely an interesting seasonal pattern (again, I’m new here!): only hardy organisms that can tolerate really hot and low oxygen waters are going to be on Florida reefs right now. Once the rest of this research team begins collecting similar data from Virginia to Florida, it will be interesting to see if these low abundance-diversity patterns might last longer in some areas (e.g., Florida with longer summer) than in others (e.g., NC with shorter summer). If that’s the case, then the cascading effects of higher order predators (things at the top of our food web) down to oysters and their water filtration services may be occur more consistently during the summer in northern than in southern estuaries.
Hmmm…..good thing we are conducting a relatively long-term study and will consistently repeat this sampling in the future to rigorously detect interesting patterns like this one.
Until next time…
The Music in the video was by Jim Crozier. As always, we welcome submissions from local musicians. WFSU’s kayak was provided by Wilderness Way.
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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