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.
Since they’ve deployed their experimental cages in Apalachicola Bay, David Kimbro’s crew has had some go missing, while others have been found in this condition. Missing buoys make potentially unharmed cages nearly impossible to find. Until just yesterday, there have been no leads as to the identities of possible culprits.
Dr. David KimbroNortheastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
I’ll eventually get to how our research on Apalachicola Bay oysters ties into shark week. But first, let me tell you about my history with the annual Shark Week, which is put on by the Discovery Channel. Growing up as a surfer in North Carolina, the best time to surf was in the late summer and early fall. After many warm months of zero waves in the spring and summer, we lived for tropical storms that would make their way into the south east….but not get too close. I hated those suckers that got too close, because fun waves would quickly turn into pigs being on the roof and lots of misfortune for my fellow North Carolinians. Continue reading Apalachicola Oyster Research: SHARK WEEK→
In January, David Kimbro’s lab did a preliminary survey of Apalachicola Bay oyster reefs, looking at the overall health of oysters and the presence of predators. They followed this up with an experiment meant to monitor oyster health and predator effects over time. Many of their experimental cages were displaced, likely due to the buoys marking them breaking off. But what they found in the cages that remained intact was that oyster drill numbers appear to be exploding in warmer waters. David is looking for help keeping tabs on them.
Dr. David KimbroNortheastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Wishing that you were wrong is not something that comes naturally to anyone. But that is how I felt at the most recent oyster task force meeting in April. There, I shared some early research results about the condition of the oyster reefs. In our surveys, we found that the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay were in really bad shape and that there were not any big bad predators hanging around the reefs to blame. Even though I had originally shot off my big mouth about the oyster fishery problem being caused by an oyster-eating snail, I hoped that our first bit of data meant the snails were never there. Or better…that they were gone. The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.
But an alternative of this David-cries-wolf story is that our January sampling didn’t turn up many predators because it’s cold in January, and because they were hunkered down for a long winters nap. Unfortunately, this option is looking stronger.
Since the task force meeting, we have been figuring out how conduct field experiments in Apalachicola. To be honest, an underwater environment without any visibility is an experimentalist’s worst nightmare. Still, we deployed fancy equipment, big cages, and then little mini experiments inside each big cage to figure out how much of the oyster problem is due to the environment, to disease, or to predators.
Even though we lost over half of our experiment and instrumentation, we recovered just enough data to show that the problem could be predation and that the culprit is a voracious snail. So, after learning some lessons on how to not lose your equipment, we decided to take another crack at it. In fact, Hanna and crew just finished sampling half of our second experiment today. We got the same results….lots of snails quickly gobbled up all of the oysters that were deployed without protective cages. But the oysters that were protected with cages did just fine.
This photo illustrates what Apalachicola oyster reefs are dealing with. This is one clutch of eggs laid by one adult snail. Within each little capsule, there are probably 10-20 baby snails. After a long winter’s nap, these snails are hungry.
We are going to keep at this, because one week long experiment doesn’t really tell us that much. But if we keep getting the same answer from multiple experiments, then we are getting somewhere.
In addition to updating y’all, I wanted to ask for your help. Because my small lab can’t be everywhere throughout the bay at all times, there are two things you could do if you are on the water.
First, if you come upon our experiment, can you let me know when you happened upon them and how many buoys you saw? If you report that all buoys are present, then I’ll sleep really well. And if you alert us that some buoys are missing, then I’ll be grateful because we will stand a better of chance of quickly getting out there before the cages are inadvertently knocked around, so that we can recover the data. Click here for GPS coordinates and further instructions.
Second, if you are tonging oysters, then you are probably tonging up snails. It would really help us to know when, where, and how many snails you caught. Take a photo on your phone (Instagram hashtag #apalachcatch – Instagram instructions here) or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be posting the photos and the information you provide on this blog.
This is kind of a new thing for us, attempting to use technology and community support this way. There may be some bumps along the way. If you’re having trouble trying to get photos to us, contact us at email@example.com.
Thanks a bunch!
David’s Apalachicola Research is funded by Florida Sea Grant
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
For today’s post, we shift our look at the ecology of fear from oyster reefs to the (often) neighboring salt marsh. We know crown conchs are villains on oyster reefs, but might they redeem themselves “in the grass?” If they live on the Forgotten Coast, it depends on what side of Apalachicola they live.
If you’re a fan of oysters and you read David’s previous post, then you probably don’t like crown conchs very much. Why? Because David and Hanna’s work shows that crown conchs may be responsible for eating lots of oysters, turning previously healthy reefs into barren outcrops of dead shell. And we generally prefer that those oysters be left alive to filter water and make more oysters. And, let’s be honest, we would rather eat them ourselves!
But, in something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act, crown conchs can take on a different persona in the salt marsh. Here, the exact same species acts as the good guy, increasing the abundance of marsh cordgrass. And more abundant marsh plants generally means more benefits for we humans in the form of erosion control, water filtration, and habitat for the fishes and crabs we like to eat. How exactly does that work?
If you look out in a salt marsh in much of the Gulf and Southeast Atlantic, I can nearly guarantee that you’ll see a marsh periwinkle snail. Usually, you’ll see lots and lots of them. These marine snails actually don’t like to get wet – they climb up the stems of the marsh grass as the tide comes in. While they are up there, they sometimes decide to nibble on a little live cordgrass, creating a razor blade-like scar on the plant that is then colonized by fungus. The periwinkles really prefer to eat this fungus instead of the cordgrass, but the damage is done – the fungus can kill the entire cordgrass plant! So these seemingly benign and harmless periwinkles can sometimes wreak havoc on a marsh.
But wait a minute – if periwinkles cause all the cordgrass to die, then why do you still see so much cordgrass (and so many snails) in the marsh? That’s where the crown conch comes in.
In marshes along the Gulf coast, there are also lots of crown conchs cruising around in the marsh (albeit slowly), and they like to eat periwinkles. Unlike other periwinkle predators such as blue crabs, the crown conchs stick around even at low tide. So when the periwinkles come down for a snack of benthic algae or dead plant material at low tide, the crown conchs are able to nab a few, reducing snail numbers. And fewer snails generally means more cordgrass.
Of course, the periwinkles aren’t dumb, and they often try to “race” away (again, these are snails!) when they realize a crown conch is in the neighborhood. One escape route is back up the cordgrass stems, or even better, up the stems of the taller needlerush that is often nearby. By causing periwinkles to spend time on the needlerush instead of grazing on cordgrass, or by making the periwinkles too scared to eat regardless of where they are sitting, the crown conch offers a second “non-consumptive” benefit for cordgrass. One of our recent experiments found that cordgrass biomass is much higher when crown conchs and periwinkles are present compared to when just periwinkles are present, even though not many periwinkles were actually eaten.
On the other hand, if the periwinkles decide to climb up on the cordgrass when they sense a crown conch, and if they aren’t too scared to eat, then crown conchs can actually have a negative effect on the plants. This is exactly what David found in one of his experiments. In this case, the tides play an important role – west of Apalachicola, where there is 1 high and 1 low tide per day, each tide naturally lasts longer than east of Apalachicola, where there are 2 high tides and 2 low tides per day. The longer tides west of Apalach appear to encourage the snails not only to stay on the cordgrass, but also to eat like crazy, and the plants bear the brunt of this particular case of the munchies.
So even in the marsh, it turns out that crown conchs can be both a friend and a foe to marsh cordgrass, depending on how the periwinkles respond to them. And figuring out what makes periwinkles respond differently in different situations just gives us more work to do!
Music in the piece by Revolution Void.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Meagan Murdock is a lab technician in the Hughes and Kimbro Labs, operating out of the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory. The experiment she describes in the following post is a central staple in the research conducted by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro into oyster reef ecology. They seek to measure factors affecting the health of an oyster at a given location by monitoring the growth of young oysters (spat) in a controlled unit- the spat tile. We’ll be further exploring the use of spat tiles in their NSF funded oystern study in the next couple of weeks. David Kimbro is also gearing up to deploy a tile experiment in Apalachicola Bay, with the goal of measuring conditions there (see photo below).
Meagan MurdockFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Mosquito Lagoon of Canaveral National Seashore is in the northern section of possibly the most diverse estuary in North America, the Indian River Lagoon. But don’t let the name “Mosquito” Lagoon scare you off! This lagoon is an expanse of mangrove islands, oyster beds, and home to charismatic animals like manatees and dolphins (maybe a few mosquitoes, but where in Florida can you not find mosquitoes??). Eight months ago, we set up a rendition of the “Tile Experiment” at three National Park Service units in hopes of elucidating factors contributing to oyster spat (spat=newly settled oyster) survival and growth. Last week we ventured out to Mosquito Lagoon to check on our baby oysters and this is what I found. The tiles were covered in BARNACLES!
I felt bad for the little oysters. Not only are these spat expected to survive through adverse environmental conditions and hope they do not become some crab or fish’s dinner, but they also are competing for space and resources with other filter feeders. Geez it must be tough being an oyster! But-yeehaw!-the oysters are persevering and I got to enjoy the nice weather of Central Florida.
As Meagan continues to monitor the growth of her Canaveral oysters, David is having Stephanie Buhler and Hanna Garland deploy some test tiles in the subtidal (always submerged) oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay. The tiles will be protected by a steel cage which will allow access to researchers while protecting the experiment from an oysterman’s tongs. Different prototypes of tiles and cages were deployed last week with the full experiment to begin in the coming weeks:
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
As David & co. start their new research on the Apalachicola oyster fishery crisis, He and Randall (and their colleagues in Georgia and North Carolina) are starting to wrap up the NSF funded oyster study that we have been following over the last couple of years. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that research through a series of videos. We’ll cover some oyster basics (how does an animal with no brain behave?), explore David and Randall’s ideas on the role of fear on the oyster reef (what makes a mud crab too afraid to eat an oyster?), and see the day-to-day problem solving and ingenuity it takes to complete a major study. As these videos are released, we’ll also keep tabs on the work being done in Apalachicola Bay, in which many of the same methods will be used.
Dr. David KimbroFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
After all, nutrients are basically plant food and oysters are animals. And how could too few nutrients coming down with the trickling flow of the Apalachicola River possibly explain the record low number of Apalachicola oysters?
This is the perfect time to use the favorite idiom of my former mentor Dr. Ted, “The long and the short of it is….”
The short of it: Plants love nutrients and sunlight as much as I like pizza and beer. But unlike my favorite foods, these plant goodies make plants grow fast and strong. This works out well for us because we all need nutrients for basic body functioning, and because we get them by eating plants and/or by the eating animals that previously consumed plants.
For our filter-feeding bivalve brethren, they get nutrients and energy by eating plant-like cells (phytoplankton) that float in the water. So, it is possible that the trickling flow of the Apalachicola River is bringing too few nutrients to support the size of the pizza buffet to which the Apalachicola oysters are accustomed. But this idea has yet to be tested.
The long of it: Long before the flow of the Apalachicola River slowed to a trickle, there weren’t a lot of nutrients. That’s why the numbers of humans used to be so low: too few nutrients meant too few plants and other animals for us to eat.
How could this possibly be the case given that 78% of the air we breathe is made up of a very important plant nutrient, nitrogen? And there is a lot of air out there!
Well, only a precious few plants exist that can deal with the nitrogen in our air and these are called nitrogen-fixers. Think of these as single-lane, windy, and bumpy dirt roads. In order to help create a plant buffet for all of us animals, a lot of atmospheric nitrogen (bio-unavailable) has to travel down this very slow road that the n-fixers maintain. As a result, it naturally takes a long time for the land to become fertile enough for a large buffet. And, it only takes a couple of crop plantings to wipe out this whole supply of bio-available nitrogen that took so long to accumulate.
Turns out that the ancient Inca civilization around Peru was not only lucky, but they were also pretty darn smart. Lucky, because they lived next to coastal islands that were basically big piles of bird poop, which is very rich in bio-available nitrogen. I’m talking thousands of years of pooping on the same spot! Smart, because they somehow figured out that spreading this on their fields by-passed that slow n-fixing road and allowed them to grow lots of food. Once Columbus tied the world together, lots of bird poop was shipped back to European farms for the same reason. That’s when the European population of humans sky-rocketed.
Turns out that humans in general are pretty smart. Through time, some chemists figured out how to create artificial bird poop, which we now cheaply dump a lot of on our farming land. So, in these modern days, we are very, very rich in bio-available nutrients.
Where am I going with the long of it? Well, on the one hand, these nutrients wash off into rivers and then float down into estuaries. This is how the phytoplankton that oysters eat can benefit from our solution to the slow n-fixing road. In turn, oysters thrive on this big phytoplankton buffet.
But, on the other hand, too much of these nutrients flowing down into our estuaries can create big problems. Every year, tons of nutrient-rich water makes it way down the Mississippi and into the shallow Gulf of Mexico waters. There, this stuff fuels one big time buffet of phytoplankton, which goes unconsumed. Once these guys live their short lives, they sink to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria. All this bacterial activity decreases the oxygen of water and in turn gives us the infamous dead zone. Because nutrient-rich run-off continues to increase every year, so too does the dead zone.
I’ll close with the thought that oysters themselves may help keep the phytoplankton buffet from getting out of control by acting like anti-nitrogen fixers. In other words, they may help convert an excess of useable nitrogen back into bio-unavailable nitrogen. While this might not have been a great thing to have in low nutrient situations, we currently live in a nutrient-rich era. What’s even cooler is that it all has to do with poop again! But this time, we are talking oyster poop.
So does this really happen? Yes. Check out an earlier post for the details. But we don’t fully understand it and that’s why it is a major focus of our research. Our collaborator, Dr. Michael Piehler of UNC-Chapel Hill, is leading this portion of our research project. Read more of Dr. Piehler’s work on this topic here.
So, hopefully this post explains why the relationship between nutrients and oysters is not so simple. But it sure is interesting and a worthy thing to keep studying!
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Stephanie Buhler is the newest addition to the Hug-Bro family (the HUGhes and KimBRO labs). She and Hanna Garland have been alternating Scuba diving duties for David Kimbro’s new Apalachicola Bay study. Stephanie was nice enough to let us strap a GoPro camera to her head as she dove, allowing us to capture images of the floor of the bay. The images give an indication as to the severity of the fishery crisis. We will continue following this study. Tomorrow, we begin a series of videos looking at David and Randall Hughes’ NSF funded oyster study. Over the course of that research, they honed many of the techniques they’re using in Apalachicola Bay. The videos will take you into that study, and into the lives of oysters and the animals that make use of the reef.
This post was written on Sunday, January 20, 2013.
Stephanie BuhlerFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Today marks our sixth day out in the Apalachicola Bay surveying the oyster reefs. It could not have been a more beautiful Sunday with the sun shining bright and a crisp-cool breeze as we drove to our first reef. While Hanna and I definitely have our methods down to a routine at this point, today we had the opportunity to learn a “new” technique for grabbing oysters that did not require a single regulator. This morning our boat captain, Shawn Hartsfield, brought his oyster tongs on the boat for us, and we had a blast trying to get his method down for picking up the oysters. Comically, he did not inform us that the metal tongs alone were about 40 lbs. as he watched our attempts in bringing our bundle of oysters to the bow of the boat. Best back and arm work out I have ever had!
Bringing the tongs onboard could not have happened on a more relaxed day. Typically Hanna and I alternate days being the boat tender/diver, but today all of our reefs were extremely shallow and no dive equipment or assistance was needed. A fantastic hassle-free Sunday of work.
The Apalachicola Bay study is funded by Florida Sea Grant. In the Grass, On the Reef is Funded by the National Science Foundation.
Last Thursday morning, an oyster boat departed East Point and disappeared into the fog. Despite the crisis level lack of oysters in Apalachicola Bay, you can still see several boats working for what little is left. That’s not what this boat was doing, however. It was carrying two divers working for David Kimbro out of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab. A foggy day is appropriate for the first day of a research study. All of the knowledge is out there, just like the St. George Bridge or the island beyond it are out beyond one’s field of vision. Eventually the sun comes out and everything is revealed.
They’ll need a little more than the sun to reveal the specifics of the oyster crisis. It’s easy enough to say that the record low flow of the Apalachicola River combined with harvesting pressure to decimate the reefs. But the forces at work are a little more nuanced than that. That’s why newly hired lab technician Stephanie Buhler and graduate student Hanna Garland are plunging into the murky waters of the bay and monitoring up to 20 sites within it for a Florida Seagrant funded project. The techniques they use will resemble those used by David and his colleague Dr. Randall Hughes in the NSF funded oyster reef study that we have been following over the last two-and-a-half years. The reefs they’ve worked on for that project were exposed at low tide. These are not, and so they’ll be diving. I’m curious to see how it goes in March, when they construct experiment cages on the floor of the bay.
One thing they’ll look at with the cages is the interaction between oysters and one of their predators. So, alongside the environmental data they’ll accumulate- salinity, availability of plankton and nutrients, oyster recruitment (new generations of oysters growing on the reef)- they will look at how the crown conch is affecting oysters in the bay. If you think it’s as simple “they’re just eating them all,” there’s a chance you might be right. But what David and Randall have found is that the fear of being eaten can be even more powerful than just removing an oyster. For a creature with no brain, oysters exhibit behavior and can be influenced by fear. In a couple of weeks, we’ll have a series of videos chronicling their pursuit of this idea over the last couple of years to see, in David’s words, “Does it matter?” It’ll be interesting to see how those dynamics might be at play here, where the higher salinity has invited a larger number of oyster consumers.
Another way this study is different from the NSF study is that one end result will be a recommendation as to how the resource is managed. David’s other collaborator on this project, Dr. J. Wilson White, will develop an Integral Projection Model for the reefs. Essentially they will take the data collected over the next few months and use it to project how the reef will do in different scenarios. Those scenarios will depend on the amount of water that flows down the Apalachicola River, which in 2012 was at an all time low. In these drought conditions, water is low across the entire Apalachicola/ Chattahootchee/ Flint basin. The basin is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, whose Master Water Control Manual gives priority to stakeholders in the rivers upstream of the Apalachicola. That Manual is being updated, and Monday is the last day that they are taking public comment on it. You can lend your voice to that discussion here.
Tonight on WFSU-TV’s Dimensions program, watch Part 2 of RiverTrek 2012. Tune in at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV. In case you missed it, you can watch Part 1 of RiverTrek 2012here.
Spread offense or Power-I formation? Man-to-Man or Zone defense? Austerity or Stimulus spending? And most importantly, Batman or Batgirl?
Whether leading a team of athletes or a population of countrymen, deciders frequently confront such either-or decisions or binary outcomes (i.e., yes or no).
Because time is one of our most limiting resources, natural scientists confront such a dilemma right out of the gate: should I pursue Applied or Basic scientific research?
By applied, I mean research that focuses on immediate solutions to societal problems: How can we deal with a new infectious disease (e.g., avian flu)? Where did the BP oil go?
By basic, I mean research that focuses on improving our knowledge about the nuances of the natural world: How many galaxies are there in the observable universe and how were they formed (I just saw a must-see iMax movie, Hubble 3D, at the JFK Space Center Visitor Complex)? Why is biodiversity so much greater in the tropics?
Flashing back to my childhood hero, I realize that Michael Jordan will likely remain the best basketball player to ever play not solely because of his offense (which was certainly top tier), but also because he worked relentlessly to become a top-tier defender as well. Obviously, few people can master both sides of a spectrum, and sometimes a focus on both or on splitting the difference can come with great cost. For example, my favorite college football team (UNC) is implementing a hybrid defense (i.e., a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3 or a 3-4) this year; we LOST 68-50 this last Saturday…in FOOTBALL!
Because my plans for playing in the NBA and NFL obviously aren’t working out, let’s get back to science and the merits of focusing on both ends of the science spectrum.
Recently, I talked about this topic with a leading research and clinical Psychologist at Florida State University, Dr. Thomas Joiner. Ignorantly, I thought FSU was only great in Football…turns out that they also have the best Psychology department in the nation. In a recent book Lonely at the Top, Dr. Joiner weaved together many interesting and Basic research studies to show how gender and evolutionary forces cause nuanced interactions all the way from neurons and one’s health to one’s social behavior. It was fascinating to learn how these interactions can promote the loneliness that facilitates suicides.
But while all of these powerful connections lined up well for the main argument of his book, I am equally interested by a conversation we recently shared together about there being many applied problems that can’t wait around for further testing of nuanced ideas. For instance, Dr. Joiner recently began working with the US military to study and reduce the causes of suicide within the military. As Dr. Joiner indicated, the military probably couldn’t give a darn about Basic research findings. They just want some realistic solutions and they want them yesterday.
If you stuck it out this far, you are probably wondering, “how does this relate to oysters, predators, etc.?” Well, the motivation of my Basic research is to increase our knowledge about how predators keep the lights on for many of the natural systems that we depend on like oyster reefs, salt marshes and seagrass beds. But in pursuing this research over the past three years, I have confronted a very important applied problem that needs immediate solutions: the oyster fishery of Apalachicola, Florida presently contains too few oysters to support the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here).
So, if you follow this blog, you’ll get to see whether my attempt to be like Mike (if you’ve seen my vertical leap, it’s obvious we’re talking research and not b-ball), to emulate the approach of Dr. Joiner, and to split the Applied–Basic difference is a success or a bust. I’ll be working with a lot of good researchers (Florida Sea Grant, UF Oyster Recovery Task Force), state organizations – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)- and the local community to examine the following:
(1) How in the heck do you work in such a large and logistically challenging system?
(2) What is the extent of the problem…how far gone is the resource?
(3) After getting some research under our belts, what our some realistic options to this problem?
(4) Because we all want answers to these questions yesterday, can we explore the existing data, which was impressively collected by FDACS for the past 30 years, to get a head start?
Finally, I suspect that this Applied perspective may help inform the merits of my Basic interests. There are a ton of things that could be contributing to the failure of the oyster fishery such as climate change, drought, fresh-water extraction, over-harvesting, disease, nutrient inputs, and water quality. Whether or not any of our predator ideas help explain the lost of this fishery represents a very big test. In other words, relative to other explanations, is all of this predator stuff really important?
Ok, as the locals along the Forgotten Coast say “let’s get’er done”.
Take the RiverTrek 2012 photo tour down the Apalachicola River. You can zoom in and scroll across the map for greater detail. Later we’ll post a map with more of the basin and bay as well, from our other EcoAdventures in the area (River Styx, Graham Creek, etc.). Also, many of the locations are approximate. We did not geotag the location of every houseboat on the river, but the photos do show up in the same general vicinity (with the exception of more recognized landmarks such as Sand Mountain, Alum Bluff, etc.).
For more information on the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, visit their web site. (They’re also on Facebook).
The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input. You can let your voice be heard here.
The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program. As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods. Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.
On the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, you could kayak from Pensacola to Jacksonville. Don’t have that kind of time? Luckily, you can plan trips of any length along the coast and try it out. Learn more below.