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→
Video: Interns at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, FL, get hands on experience working with marine life and equipment.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
We’re on a boat, speeding through Apalachee Bay on our way back to land. We’ve accompanied Cypress Rudloe and two Gulf Specimen Marine Lab interns on a trip to collect samples. Buckets full of octopus and sea urchins slosh as I take a good look to my left and right and get a firm perspective of where I am. We’re several miles from the St. Marks Lighthouse; it stands out unmistakably as it was designed to do. Smoke unfurls over it and into the Gulf, from a controlled burn on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. I look left and see the mouth of the Ochlockonee River, and follow the contour of the land as it curls out of sight to Alligator Point. These interns are preparing for a life that keeps them in places like this. Bravo. Continue reading Interning at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab: Hands On→
I figured it was a good sign that our first glimpse of Saint Joseph Bay was of it under a double rainbow. Of course, that required me to ignore all of the rain clouds that caused the rainbows, and some of the far off lightning I saw on our drive to Port Saint Joe. But why head into my shoot with a negative attitude? It didn’t take long for the sun to come out after we got on Captain Bobby Guilford’s boat. I can’t control the weather, but if I could, I’d have arranged it like it turned out. First, some clouds and precipitation for the rainbow shot, and then the sun we needed to shoot in seagrass beds and, more importantly, to see the scallops we were there to find. Florida weather is just as often a friend to our shoots as it is a nasty nemesis. Continue reading Scalloping Saint Joseph Bay Seagrass Beds: Video→
Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions. Tune in to watch our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure. We snorkel seagrass beds, see some fun critters, and breathe underwater with the Snuba. We also eat some tasty scallops. But you can’t taste these guys if they’re still in their shells. Below, Captain Bobby Guilford of Break-A-Way Charters shows us how to shuck our catch. Captain Bobby took us out on the water in July, and he gave us this quick demo:
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Another season of EcoAdventures is so close we can almost taste it. Next week, it’ll taste like bay scallops as we return to Saint Joseph Bay not for science, but to enjoy the products of the seagrass bed ecosystem. Saint Joe Bay is of course where we’ve been partnering with Dr. Randall Hughes to explore the inner workings of salt marshes and seagrass beds. Just a bunch of grass? Not if you like seafood. Randall will have more about what she’s learned from Saint Joe Bay next week. Continue reading Shucking a Saint Joseph Bay Scallop: Video→
David and Randall’s NSF funded oyster study looks to understand how predators control oyster eating animals such as mud crabs and crown conchs. But this dynamic isn’t exclusive to oyster reefs. They are also investigating how predators might help maintain salt marshes and seagrass beds. In their seagrass bed studies, they have focused on a system loaded with predators: Bay Mouth Bar.
Tanya RogersFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
The very first time I drove from Tallahassee to the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab I saw a black bear crossing the Crawfordville highway. No joke. This was in June of 2010, and I had just driven 5 days and 2800 miles from San Francisco to the Florida panhandle to take up my new job on the Gulf Coast. I had just finished college in Washington state, and I had never before been to the Southeast. What sort of wild place had I ended up in?
A very wild and unique one it turns out, and one I’ve come to know better working for the past few years as a research technician for Dr. David Kimbro in the fascinating coastal habitats of this region. Primarily I’ve been traipsing around oysters reefs across the state for the collaborative biogeographic oyster study (now drawing to a close), but for the past year or so I’ve also been managing our side project in the Bay Mouth Bar system, a sandbar and seagrass bed near the FSU Marine Lab. Bay Mouth Bar is a naturalist’s playground filled with surprises and an astonishing diversity of marine creatures that never ceases to amaze me. It is also a unique study system with an intriguing history out of which we can begin asking many interesting questions. This coming fall I’m excited to be starting as Dr. Kimbro’s Ph.D. student at Northeastern University, and for part of my dissertation I’ve decided to conduct some new experimental research this spring and summer out on Bay Mouth Bar.
Bay Mouth Bar is known for its especially diverse assemblage of large predatory snails, which the ecologist Robert T. Paine conducted a study of in the late 1950’s. In 2010, we began surveying the snail community on the bar, interested in what changes might have occurred in the 50 years since Paine’s time, a period during which very little research had been done in this system. I began synthesizing some of the data we’ve gathered, as well as talking to some of the long-term residents of the area. So what has changed on Bay Mouth Bar since the 1950’s? A number of things in fact:
Of the 6 most common predatory snail species, 2 are no longer present: the true tulip and the murex snail.
The number of specialist snails (like the murex, which only eats clams) has declined relative to the number of generalist snails (those that eat a variety of prey, like the banded tulip).
There has been a drastic reduction in the overall area of the bar and changes in the coverage seagrass, specifically the loss of large meadows turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum).
Surface dwelling bivalves (e.g. scallops, cockles), once enormously abundant, are now very rare.
Why is this interesting? Worldwide, we know that species diversity is declining as a result of human activities, that specialists are being increasingly replaced by generalists, and that consumer and predator species often face a disproportionate risk of local extinction. So what are the consequences of realistic losses and changes to biodiversity? Is having a diversity of predators beneficial (e.g. both horse conchs and true tulips) to an ecosystem as a whole? Do some species matter more than others? And how do the effects of predators depend on the type of habitat they’re in, given that habitats (like seagrasses) are also changing in response to the environmental changes? These are some of the questions I’m hoping to address in Bay Mouth Bar system, in which we have documented historical changes in predator diversity.
This past week, I set up an experiment featuring a menagerie of snails tethered in different assemblages across Bay Mouth Bar. Some assemblages mimic the current assemblage, whereas others mimic the assemblage found on the bar during Paine’s time. These historical assemblages include the snail species no longer found there, which I collected from other locations where they are still abundant. Some assemblages have top predators (e.g. horse conchs) whereas others do not. Some are in turtle grass, others are in shoal grass. We’ll see how, over the course of the summer, these different assemblages affect the prey community (clams, mussels, small snails) and other elements of seagrass ecosystem functioning.
Music in the piece by Donnie Drost. Theme by Lydell Rawls.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
It’s a problem commonly faced by field biologists: You want to put some particular critters out in the field in various places, but how do you keep them from getting swept away or wandering off too far, and how do you ever find them again later to see how they did? Behold the tether! So long as tethers are designed not to interfere too much with the animals’ natural behavior (walking around, burrowing, etc), leashing them to a fixed object is generally a good way to relocate them (provided you study something like crabs or snails and not lions or bald eagles). The other fun benefit of tethering marine invertebrates: you can take them for walks (albeit slow ones).
I recently conducted an experiment in which I put tethered baby clams (sunray venus and quahog, about 12 mm long) out on Bay Mouth Bar to see how their growth, survivorship, and burial depth was affected by (1) their location on the bar (NE, SW, SE, NW) and (2) the type of habitat the clams were in (sand, shoal grass, turtle grass). I checked on the clams a month later: some were still alive and growing, others were dead with clues indicating their likely cause of demise – gaping shell with no damage (stress), cracked shell (eaten by crab), drill hole in shell (eaten by predatory snail). My preliminary analysis suggests that survivorship and causes of death varied between habitat types. Next I hope to do a similar sort of study with tethered snails on Bay Mouth Bar.
When we started doing Notes From the Field, the intention was for the researchers and their techs and students to write about interesting things they saw or did while conducting their studies. But I’m sneaking one in. A couple of weeks ago I went out to Bay Mouth Bar with David Kimbro and his crew for their monthly sampling of gastropods and bivalves. Horse conchs were plentiful during the summer months, but as the temperature drops they leave for deeper and warmer waters. WFSU videographer Dan Peeri and I walked around getting shots of dead turtlegrass, a sign of seasonal change. Oystercatchers were eating sea urchins; how close would they and the other birds let us get?
It was an interesting but quiet day when we heard a shout at the west end of the bar, facing the open Gulf. Hanna Garland, newly returned from her graduate study on the crown conch problem south of Saint Augustine, seemed to have found something interesting. Whenever there’s yelling at Bay Mouth Bar, there’s good footage to be found. Hanna had found a pair of horse conchs mating. There were several of the football sized orange snails on this side of the bar, including a second coupled pair. It seems that they hadn’t quite made it to deeper waters, but were perhaps on the way. And the behavior we observed got my imagination going. Do they mate before heading on, laying their eggs in deeper waters? Is that why they leave in the winter, leaving the door open for increased lightning whelk activity? We can’t say that based on things we saw one day. But that is one of the wonderful things about visiting wild habitats: seeing animals behave in different ways and getting glimpses into why things happen the way they do (even if careful study ends up providing an alternate narrative).
Horse conchs make an appearance in my EcoAdventures segment on the Leave No Trace principles on tonight’s episode of Dimensions, at 7:30 PM/ ET. Part of visiting wild places and witnessing interesting behavior is not influencing it with your own behavior. We go over best practices for not disturbing a habitat and its inhabitants. And for those who haven’t gotten enough Apalachicola River video, our State Parks One Tank Adventure segment tonight is on Torreya State Park. Also, you can check out our new Apalachicola River and Bay Basin page, under the EcoAdventures North Florida menu. From there you’ll have access to all of our videos on the basin (beyond the river and the bay) and play with our interactive photo map.
It’s always a good shoot day at Bay Mouth Bar as every animal seems to be eating every other animal. Oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds– the habitats we’ve covered over the last three weeks- reward those who take the time to look closely. At Bay Mouth Bar, everything is all out in the open. For a limited time, anyway…
Dr. David KimbroFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Like most kids, I spent a lot of my formative years in the backyard practicing how to throw the game-winning touch down pass, to shoot the game winning three-pointer, and to sink the formidably long putt. Although my backyard facilities obviously didn’t propel me into the NFL, NBA, or PGA, they never closed, required no admission fee from my pockets (thanks Mom and Dad!), and were only a few steps away.
Now that I’m striving to be an ecologist at Florida State University, I’m feeling pretty darn lucky about my backyard again. Instead of spending tons of time flying, boating, and driving to far away exotic places, I can use a kayak and ten minutes of David-power to access some amazing habitats right here along the Forgotten Coast.
Part of this coastal backyard was first intellectually groomed by one of the more famous and pioneering scientists of modern-day ecology, Dr. Robert Paine. Five decades ago, Dr. Paine noticed that the tip of Alligator Point sticks out of the water for a few hours at low tide. Of course, this only happens when the tides get really low, which happens about 5 days every month. But when the tip of Alligator Point (which is locally called Bay Mouth Bar) did emerge from the sea each month, Dr. Paine saw tons of large carnivorous snails slithering around a mixture of mud and seagrass. When I first saw this place, my eyeballs bulged out at the site of snails as large as footballs!
Fast- forward 2 decades later: Dr. Paine is developing one of the most powerful ecological concepts (keystone species), one that continues to influence our science and conservation efforts to this very day. Using the rocky shoreline of the Pacific North West as his coastal backyard, he is showing how a few sea stars dramatically dictate what a rocky shoreline looks like.
By eating lots of mussels that outcompete wimpy algae and anemones for space, the sea star allows a lot of different species to stick around. In other words, the sea star maintains species diversity of this community by preventing the mussel bullies from taking over the schoolyard. That’s one simple, but powerful concept….one species can be the keystone for maintaining a system. Lose that species, and you lose the system.
Ok, let’s grab our ecological concept and travel back in time to Dr. Paine’s earlier research at Bay Mouth Bar. Wow, the precursor to the keystone species concept may be slithering around our backyard of Bay Mouth Bar in the form of the majestic horse conch! In this earlier work, the arrival of this big boy at the bar was followed by the disappearance of all of the former big boys (like this lightning whelk). By eating lots of these potential bullies, the horse conch may be the key for keeping this system so diverse in terms of other wimpy snails.
But why should anyone other than an ecologist care about the keystone species concept and its ability to link Bay Mouth Bar with rocky shorelines of the Pacific NW? Well, what if the lightning whelks eat a lot more clams than do other snails, and less clams buried beneath sediments means less of the sediment modification that can really promote seagrass (Read more about the symbiotic relationship between bivalves and seagrasses here)? Thanks to Randall’s previous seagrass post, we can envision that less horse conchs could lead to less clams, less seagrass, and then finally a lot less of things that are pleasing to the eye (e.g., birding), to the fishing rod (e.g., red drum), to the stomach (e.g., blue crabs), and ultimately to our economy.
For the past two years, I’ve really enjoyed retracing Dr. Paine’s footsteps at Bay Mouth Bar. But lately, I’m feeling a little more urgent about needing to better understand this system because it’s disappearing (aerial images provided by USGS’s online database at http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/).
To figure this out, we repeat a lot of what Dr. Paine did five decades ago. At the same time, we are testing some new ideas about how this system operates. For example, if the horse conch is the keystone species, is it dictating what Bay Mouth Bar looks like by eating stuff or by scaring the bully snails? How exactly does or doesn’t the answer affect clams, seagrasses, birds and fishes?
Luckily, because this system is so close, with some persistence and some good help, we’ll soon have good answers to those questions.
Ps: Many thanks to Mary Balthrop for helping us access this awesome study system every month.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Episode 6: Blue Carbon Where the Stingray Meets the Horse Conch
At the beginning of September, Randall and David had a visit from Dr. Peter Macreadie of the University of Technology, Sydney. In this video, Randall takes Dr. Macreadie for a snorkel in St. Joseph Bay.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
We now focus our attention to seagrasses, which as it turns out, often don’t get a lot of attention, at least in comparison to other marine habitats like coral reefs or even salt marshes.
In part, this lack of attention is due to the fact that seagrasses typically live completely underwater, except at very low tide, and so they are not as noticeable as marshes are. In addition, seagrasses often occur in shallow estuaries not known for their great visibility (and thus not as ideal a location as coral reefs for snorkelers or scuba divers). And, although I disagree, some people just don’t find them very pretty.
Last week as I was starting to think about this post, there was a small uptick in the number of media articles related to seagrasses, at least in Australia. The increased interest was in response to a proposal by the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, to require greater seagrass protection from mining and development projects (read more in this article from the Brisbane Times). As justification for the increased financial burden on companies, Mr. Burke cited the many benefits that seagrasses provide. And just what are those?
Seagrasses (like salt marshes and oyster reefs) provide habitat for many, many fishes and invertebrates. Studies have found that the number of animals living in seagrasses beds can be an order of magnitude higher than the number living in adjacent coastal habitats. Many of these animals rely on the seagrass beds as a “nursery” that protects them from predators until they grow larger. And lots are recreationally and commercially important species that we like to eat. (Scallops, anyone?)
Seagrasses are also incredibly productive plants, sometimes growing more than 1cm per day, and rivaling our most productive crop species like corn. Because a significant portion of this plant material (particularly the roots and rhizomes below ground) stays in place once the plants die, seagrasses can also serve as important ‘carbon sinks’, or buried reservoirs of carbon. In fact, a recent study estimates that the carbon stored in the sediments of seagrass beds is on par with that stored in the sediments of forests on land!
Although lots of the productivity of seagrass beds makes its way underground, some of it does get eaten. Major consumers of seagrasses include urchins and fishes, as well as the more charismatic dugongs, manatees, and sea turtles.
Seagrasses (like salt marshes) also play an important role in reducing nutrients that run off from land into the water. Unfortunately, these nutrients can also lead to the loss of seagrasses, by promoting increased growth of algal “epiphytes” that grow on the blades of the seagrasses themselves. When there are not enough small fishes and invertebrates around to eat these algae, they can overgrow and outcompete the seagrass, leading to its decline. And when the seagrasses become less abundant, the animals that rely on them are also often in danger.
The Big Bend and Panhandle of Florida are home to expansive seagrass beds that also often go unnoticed. But they contribute to the productivity, diversity, and beauty of this area in many ways, as anyone who has been scalloping recently has surely realized!
Here is a quick guide to the animals featured in the video above:
0:40 Horse conch and sea urchin joined suddenly by a stingray
1:41 Juvenile pinfish
1:18 Two shots of a bay scallop
1:33 Sea urchin
1:49 Pen shell clam covered in sea stars (2 shots)
1:56 Horse conch
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.