Category Archives: Salt Marsh Ecology | In the Grass
Dr. Randall Hughes, among other things, studies biodiversity in salt marshes, and how it affects the habitat’s ability to cope with disturbances. Does having a greater variety of plant species benefit a salt marsh? Does having more genetic individuals of smooth cordgrass help when environmental or man made catastrophes strike? Randall is looking at several factors, from the animals that eat the cordgrass (the foundation species of the marsh), to which combinations of plants work best together, or how seagrass wrack affects the health of a marsh.
Most of her study is centered on St. Joseph Bay, on Florida’s Gulf coast. On this blog you will also see some of her side projects looking at black mangroves are starting to become more prevalent in Gulf salt marshes and why seagrass beds around the world are dying off.
I’m standing on a boat ramp on Dickerson Bay just two days after Hurricane Michael passed through. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, the Florida panhandle is in shambles. But it’s hard to reconcile that with what I’m seeing now. It’s a near cloudless day. A willet wanders on a sand bar, letting fiddler crabs get thick a few feet away before plunging in for a snack. Common buckeye butterflies sun on Spartina alterniflora, marsh cordgrass, and on the adjacent sand. There’s not a single human built structure in sight. Continue reading Gulf Specimen Marine Lab Recovers After Hurricane Michael→
When we get to the mouth of Chaires Creek, the tide has gone out enough to see the tops of some oysters. It’s a little after 1 pm- high tide was 10:16 am, and low tide is 4:02 pm. If we stay too much longer, the mouth of the creek will be choked by oyster bars, and sand bars will make the kayak back to Tucker Lake slow going.
We’re pleased to introduce our newest blogger, Jessie Mutz. A graduate student in the Florida State University Department of Biological Science, Jessie will be taking a closer look at some of the many fascinating plants and animals in our area. In the process, she’ll introduce us to FSU students and faculty conducting research across various ecosystems. She starts in a place familiar to this blog when it comes to FSU research- our very own Forgotten Coast.
Jessie MutzGraduate Student, FSU Department of Biological Science
With summertime officially and emphatically here in North Florida, many of us are coastward bound. Like long walks on the beach? As it turns out, you’re not the only one.
Meet Dr. Scott Burgess, a marine evolutionary ecologist and one of the newest faculty in FSU’s Department of Biological Science. Although it’s only the start of his first full summer in Tallahassee, Scott has already been hitting the beach – a prime location for researching the reproductive strategies of intertidal invertebrates like the crown conch, Melongena corona. “This area has a lot of species with an unusual life history type, one that is typically less common in other areas,” he says. “So that’s a big interesting thing: Why are there lots of these weird ones here? Why have all of the species chosen this particular life history in this area of the world?” Continue reading Crown Conchs, Parenting, and Walks Along the Gulf Coast→
Dr. Randall Hughes has collaborated with WFSU on this blog since 2010. We have spent years visiting her research sites in Saint Joseph Bay, where Randall conducted a multi-year study on salt marsh biodiversity funded by the National Science Foundation. The study has concluded, and Randall has published several papers on her findings. Here is what she has found.
This is Saint Joe Bay week on the Ecology Blog. Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions, and our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure.
Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University
As you drive along Highway 98 towards St. Joseph Bay (SJB), one of the most common views outside your window is of the salt marsh. From the car, it looks like a beautiful but monotonous meadow of green and/or brown, depending on the season, often intersected by tidal channels. So I won’t blame you if “diversity” is not the first word that comes to your mind as you gaze out the window. But diversity is exactly what I set out to find out about when this project first started – how much diversity is there in the marshes of St. Joe Bay, and what (if any) effects does it have? And now, several years later, I finally have answers to share!
We hope you’re enjoying the new look! The biggest change is the Facebook commenting system, which we hope encourages more people to join or start a conversation about what we’re covering. We’re also pleased to announce that the latest In the Grass, On the Reef documentary, Oyster Doctors, is now online for your viewing pleasure.
Wednesday, March 19 at 8 PM on WFSU-TV, catch the broadcast premiere of the new In the Grass, On the Reef documentary: Oyster Doctors.
Lately I’ve been preoccupied with wrapping up the National Science Foundation grant that funds a lot of what appears on this blog, and thinking about the future of the project. The last major piece of funded content is our latest documentary, Oyster Doctors, chronicling four years of research conducted by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro. On the one hand, the show is about learning how coastal ecosystems work. And it’s about how the inner workings of salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds provide people with jobs, clean water, and protection from erosion and storm surge. But it’s as much about the ecologists as it is about the ecology.
Update March 9, 2014 – We’d like to thank everyone who came out for one or more of our events on Saturday. It was a pleasure to meet all of you (photos will be posted soon). If you missed the premiere, Oyster Doctors will air on WFSU-TV on Wednesday March 19, 8 pm/ 7 ct. Look for it online shortly after.
Video: Critters galore at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
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 Video: Turtles, Octopus, & Crabs at the Gulf Specimen Lab→
2-Minute Video: Seagrass wrack kills part of the marsh, but do its benefits outweigh the destruction?
Our videos to date have centered on biodiversity in the marsh and how it can make a marsh stronger against disturbances. As we see in this video, at least one type of disturbance might actually promote genetic and/ or species diversity.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University
This time of year if you look around salt marshes in our area, you’ll probably see a strip of dead plant material, or “wrack”, resting on top of the salt marsh plants around the high tide line. Look closer, and you’ll see that it’s mostly made up of seagrass leaves that have either been sloughed off naturally (seagrasses produce lots of new leaves in the summer and shed the old ones) or, occasionally, uprooted by boats driving through shallow seagrass beds. Look even closer (say, by picking it up), and you may just find a harmless marsh snake (or worse, a cottonmouth!) – in our experience, they like to hang out in the cool, moist areas under the wrack. Continue reading Seagrass Wrack in the Salt Marsh – Blessing or Curse?→
2-Minute Video: Mangroves don’t love the cold, but relatively mild winters have seen them multiply north of their range. Randall takes a closer look at black mangroves in the salt marshes of Saint Joseph Bay.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University
A few years ago, I took my colleague Dr. Ed Proffitt to check out the marshes in St. Joseph Bay. He asked to see mangroves, and I thought he was crazy. Mangroves up here? No way! But we had only been in one Buffer Preserve salt marsh together for a few minutes before I realized that the small “shrubs” that I had previously ignored were actually small black mangroves! And the more we looked, the more we found. They aren’t everywhere, but they can be quite abundant in some places.
Mangroves typically occur below the “frost line”, or in areas that don’t experience hard freezes. Lore has it that mangroves have become more common in the northern Gulf of Mexico in recent years due to a series of mild winters. I haven’t been monitoring them long enough to say whether or not there are more now than there were, say, 10 or even 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to see that the ones that are here are successfully reproducing, with small seedlings surrounding the adult trees.
There are even red mangroves lingering around – they are less cold-tolerant than the black mangroves and a surprise to find in our marshes!
I definitely have not seen any significant dieback in the last 5 winters, even when we have had hard freezes. And I would not be surprised if they become more common and abundant as the climate continues to change.
Mangroves in the marsh raise a number of interesting questions. Will they take over? What will that mean for the services these areas provide to people? Will the fishes and crabs that we like to eat become more or less abundant if mangroves dominate over marsh grasses?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I can say that the mangroves that occur in St. Joseph Bay aren’t necessarily “better” at surviving in the northern Gulf than mangroves from farther down south. And why should they be? Well, if a group of mangrove propagules arrived in St. Joe Bay, we may expect that only a subset of them would be able to survive the colder temperatures, and when these propagules grew into adult trees and produced propagules of their own, they should pass that “benefit” to their offspring (the process known as natural selection).
How do we we test whether St. Joe Bay mangroves are better equipped to live here than mangroves from down south? We have 2 ongoing experiments where we’ve planted “propagules” (young mangroves that look a lot like seeds) from different locations throughout FL in St. Joe Bay and followed them through time to see which ones survive and grow the best. There’s a lot of variation, but the St. Joe Bay propagules (which were largely the “runts” of the bunch to begin with) did not do as well as propagules from some of the areas down south such as Cedar Key and Cape Canaveral. These results suggest that it doesn’t take a particularly special propagule to survive in the northern Gulf; instead, there probably aren’t just many propagules that make it up here to begin with.
Of course, we’ve only been monitoring these propagules for 1-2 years; maybe the St. Joe propagules have an advantage when they get old / big enough to reproduce. We don’t want to speed up the mangrove take-over, so we’ll remove the seedlings in our experiment before that happens. But we’ll definitely continue to monitor the ones that already made it here on their own accord to see what they do next!
Music in the video by pitx.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.