This past Wednesday researchers from the University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team presented their report on the state of Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery. The Apalachicola Community Center was filled with concerned locals, many of which were oystermen. They were looking for news on the crash of the fishery and recommendations for future action.
The task force is made up of UF researchers and our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro of Northeastern University (and until recently, Florida State University). They collected and analyzed historical sets of data on the health and abundance of oyster stocks in the bay, and added current field observations. This data was then used to create a model which would predict the success of restoration efforts under different flow conditions on the Apalachicola River. Continue reading The Apalachicola Bay Situation Report: A Quick Take→
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.
Last week David connected the regional dots, noticing similarities in oyster reefs overrun by oyster eating crown conchs across North Florida, from the Matanzas Reserve south of Saint Augustine to Apalachicola Bay. That included a breakdown of what they found during surveys of the Bay. Below, Hanna Garland details one of her experiments mentioned by David in the post.
Hanna GarlandFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Gaining a better understanding of the beautiful yet complex habitats that border our coastlines require a significant amount of time surveying and manipulating organisms (as you may know if you have been following our research for the past three years!), and even so, there can still be limitations in whether or not we truly know what is “naturally” occurring in the system. Unfortunately, pristine salt marshes, seagrass beds and oyster reefs are in a general state of decline worldwide; however, this only heightens our incentive to investigate further into how species interact and how this influences the services and health of habitats that we depend on for food and recreation.
For the past two and a half years we have been studying the oyster populations along 15km of estuary in St. Augustine, but it did not require fancy field surveys or experiments to notice a key player in the system: the crown conch. Present (and very abundant!) on oyster reefs in the southern region of the estuary, but absent in the northern region, it was obvious that there were interesting dynamics going on here…and we were anxious to figure that out!
In hopes of addressing the question: who is eating whom or more importantly, who is not eating whom, we played a game of tether ball (not really!) with nearly 200 conchs of various sizes by securing each one to a PVC pole (with a 1m radius of fishing line for mobility) onto oyster reefs. After six months (and still ongoing), the only threat to the poor snails’ survival appeared to be the thinstripe hermit crab (Clibinarius vittatus)!
Hypothesized that hermit crabs invade and occupy the shell of a larger crown conch in order to have a better home, we decided to further investigate the interactions between crown conchs and hermit crabs by placing them in a cage together (almost like a wrestling match).
After only a few days, the mortality began, and results showed a weak relationship between species and size, and appeared to be more of a “battle of the fittest”.
The implications of how the interactions between crown conchs and hermit crabs influence the oyster populations are still largely unknown, but knowing that neither species have dominance over one another is important in understanding the food webs that oyster reefs support…and that organisms occupying ornate gastropod shells can be lethal as well!
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
A couple of years ago, David wrote about what seemed to be a very locally contained problem. An out of control population of crown conchs was decimating oyster reefs south of Saint Augustine. Now, he’s seeing that problem in other Florida reefs, including those at the edges Apalachicola Bay. In reviewing his crew’s initial sampling of the bay, he sees that the more heavily harvested subtidal reefs are being assaulted by a different snail.
Dr. David KimbroFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Along the Matanzas River south of St. Augustine Florida, Phil Cubbedge followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by harvesting and selling oysters for a living. But this reliable income became unreliable and non-existent sometime around 2005. Then, Phil could find oysters but only oysters that were too small for harvest. Like many other folks in this area, Phil abandoned this honest and traditional line of work.
In 2010, Phil was fishing with his grandson along the Matanzas River and spotted several individuals who seemed severely out of place. Because Phil decided to see what they were up to, we are one step closer toward figuring out what happened to the oyster reefs of Matanzas and what may be happening to the oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay.
Before I met Phil on this fateful morning, I was studying how the predators that visit oyster reefs may help maintain reefs and the services they provide (check out that post here). My ivory-tower mission was to see if the benefits of predators on oyster reefs change from North Carolina to Florida. To be honest, I’m not from Florida and I blindly chose the Matanzas reefs to be one of my many study sites. And in order to study lots of sites from NC to Florida, I couldn’t devote much time or concern to any one particular site. In short, I was a Lorax with a Grinch-sized heart that was two sizes too small; I just wanted some data from as many sites as possible.
But then I met Phil, heard about his loss, and understood that no one was paying attention to it. After looking around this area, my Grinch-sized heart grew a little bigger. Everywhere I looked had a lot of reef structure yet no living oysters. Being a desk-jockey now, I immediately made my first graduate student (Hanna) survey every inch of oyster reef along 15 km of Matanzas shoreline. I think it was about a month’s worth of hard labor during a really hot summer, but she’s tough. Hey, I worked hard on my keyboard!
With these data and lots of experiments, we showed that a large loss of Matanzas oyster reef is due to a voracious predatory snail (crown conch, Melongena corona). This species has been around a long time and it is really important for the health of salt marshes and oyster reefs (in next week’s post, Randall shows the crown conch’s role in the salt marsh). But something is out of whack in Matanzas because its numbers seemed to look more like an outbreak. But, why? Well, thanks to many more Hanna surveys and experiments, we are closing in on that answer: a prolonged drought, decreasing inputs of fresh water, and increasing water salinity.
We need to figure this out soon, because we see the same pattern south of Matanzas at Cape Canaveral. In addition, I saw conchs overwhelming the intertidal reefs of Apalachicola last fall. While these reefs may not be good for harvesting, they are surely tied to the health of the subtidal reefs that have been the backbone of the Apalachicola fishery for a very long time. Even worse, the bay’s subtidal reefs seemed infested with another snail predator, the southern oyster drill (Stramonita haemastoma). Is this all related? After all, according to locals and a squinty-eyed look at Apalachicola oyster landings, it looks like Apalachicola reefs also started to head south in 2005.
To help answer my question, my team began phase 1 of a major monitoring program throughout Apalachicola Bay in January 2013.With funding from Florida SeaGrant, my lab targeted a few oyster reefs and did so in a way that would provide a decent snap shot of oysters throughout the whole bay. With the help of Shawn Hartsfield and his trusty boat, a visit to these sites over a time span of two weeks and hours upon hours of sample processing back at the lab revealed the following:
(1) There is a lot more oyster reef material in the eastern portion of the bay;
(2) There are also a lot more adult oysters toward the east;
(3) Regardless of huge differences in adult oyster density and reef structure, the ratio of dead oysters to live oysters is about the same throughout the whole bay;
(4) Although the abundance of snail predators is not equal throughout the whole bay, it looks like their abundance may track the abundance of adult oysters.
These data do not show a smoking gun, because many different things or a combination of things could explain these patterns. To figure out whether the outbreak of multiple snail predators is the last straw on the camel’s back for Apalachicola and other north Florida estuaries, we are using the same experimental techniques that Hanna used in Matanazas River. Well, like any repeat of an experiment, we had to add a twist. Thank goodness Stephanie knows how to weld!
Luckily, I have a great crew that is daily working more hours than a day should contain. As I type, they are installing instrumentation and experiments that will address my question. If you see Hanna and Stephanie out on the bay, please give them a smile and a pat on the back.
Click here to see graphs illustrating the increase in salinity in the Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). The NERR System allows you to review data from sensors at any of their reserves, including Matanzas and Apalachicola.
Music in the piece by Philippe Mangold.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
As fast as summer approached, it is now over; and for myself, it marks the closing of an intense field season and the beginning of my first year as a graduate student. However, this does not mean that the experiments, laboratory work, and data collection is put on hold. There is still plenty of work to check off the “to do” list that seems to never get any shorter.
My last post introduced the scientific question I was hoping to answer and the reason for studying the relationship between crown conchs and oysters in the Matanzas River as opposed to a different location. While I did not answer the question entirely (that would be far too difficult to accomplish in one summer), I was able to establish a strong, preliminary data set that I can now analyze and re-configure in order to improve upon this research next season.
Similar to methods described in David and Tanya’s posts, the construction of my experiment consisted of (much smaller) trenches dug for cage installation, Z-spar for attaching oyster spat to tiles, bumblebee bee tagging kits for marking appropriately weighed and measured oyster clusters, and various amounts of PVC for expensive data logger equipment housing. The fun meter never stopped ticking this summer in St. Augustine!
As I sit in my cubicle in my new office on campus, my mind cannot help but wander back to my life this summer driven by the time of low tide and whether I would have enough sunlight or energy to kayak out to one more site. To my surprise, the running of my experiment was manageable and actually became a relaxing routine. Data collection was divided into three categories: conch surveys, oyster health, and data logger maintenance. The number of conchs found on the experimental reefs was recorded in order to quantify the varying densities of these predators at each site. The health of the small oysters attached to tiles as well as the tagged larger clusters were assessed based on the number of live and dead. The data logging instruments record the water temperature, salinity and amount of tidal inundation occurring at each of my six experimental oyster reefs every five minutes (so there are a lot of data points to be analyzed here!) and require periodic scrubbing to remove algal and barnacle growth.
While the daily workload may seem light as far as stress levels; the fine print of every step of an experiment can be a tremendous mix of emotions. The hope for not just data but “good” data is something that all scientists share; however, this does not mean that conducting research needs to be filled with anxiety. The outlook that I aimed to have this summer was more based on the feelings of excitement and opportunity rather than high expectations that may or may not be met. To be able to conduct this study in such an ecologically rich environment surrounded by intelligent, supportive, and proactive people and institutions is an accomplishment in itself.
While my data set still requires endless hours of manipulation and analysis, the general outcome of my experiment this summer revealed that there is in fact an oyster health gradient occurring along the Matanzas River, with a change in health occurring around the Matanzas Inlet. In tandem with this increasing oyster mortality moving from my sites north of the inlet to the sites south; are high densities of crown conch populations on the southern reefs, with a decrease in these populations moving towards reefs north of the inlet. Furthermore, environmental factors (water temperature, salinity and tidal inundation data collected by my instruments) will be considered when looking at these patterns.
As a way to better quantify the health and size of the oyster community as well as the density of the resident species (such as crabs, worms, and other amphipods) that inhabit oyster reefs; I surveyed and sampled background reefs at each of my six experimental sites. Long story short, this meant that I randomly selected four new oyster reefs at each site in which I collected environmental data and basic reef characteristics (type of reef, location, dimensions), conducted conch surveys, and collected every living oyster cluster, dead shell, crab, piece of biota, etc. inside of a 0.25 x 0.25 meter quadrat. After washing away the mud, extracting the living organisms and preserving them in ethanol, and weighing, measuring, and recording each live and dead oyster, I have developed a solid database of the oyster reef communities at each of my sites. This will help to better describe the type and abundance of species present at each site.
Oyster reef communities impact us in more ways than providing a tasty appetizer at a restaurant. Not only do they provide a habitat for commercially and ecologically important species, but they also serve to locally improve water quality and prevent erosion. Oyster reefs are complex communities that are in a state of decline along the Florida coast. Unfortunately, unhealthy oysters cause unhealthy or collapsed resident species communities because these organisms depend on oyster reef habitats for food, shelter, and other important aspects of their life cycle. This experiment and preliminary data set provides insight to changing food web dynamics occurring not only along the Matanzas River but in all oyster reef communities.
Whether you are enjoying seafood for dinner or driving on a bridge over estuarine environments, keep in mind the important role each individual species plays in a larger community structure. Our actions upstream of these fragile habitats impact everything from microscopic worms to the maturing oyster spat and larger fish populations. As my project evolves, I hope to not only strengthen the scientific community but also raise awareness among people who unknowingly influence an aspect of oyster reef habitats.
In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear
Premieres on WFSU-TV Wednesday, June 29 at 7:30 PM, 6:30 CT. In high definition where available.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
This clip is a short segment on one of the predators featured in this program: the horse conch. It’s practically an ecosystem onto itself, as you can see in the video’s poster frame above. Barnacles, crepidula, bryozoans, and other marine creatures that affix themselves to hard surfaces settle on its shell. In the video you’ll see its bright orange body as it roams the seagrass beds of the Forgotten Coast. And you’ll see it eat another large predatory snail, the lightning whelk.
A little over a year ago, when the FSU Coastal & Marine Laboratory and WFSU-TV – a TV station – started this online enterprise, the understanding was that at some point this would end up being a show. And so here we are. As you may have gathered from that video up there, this will be about predators and prey: who’s eating whom, and who’s scaring whom. We will of course be doing this through the prism of David and Randall’s studies: the consumptive and non-consumptive effects of predators in salt marshes and oyster reefs, and the methods used to shine a light on these interactions. Continue reading In the Grass, On the Reef, Over the Airwaves→
Last week I detailed a recent trip to St. Augustine, ending the post with a mention of a side project being embarked upon by my lab there. Throughout the past year, we’ve noticed that our St. Augustine study site was loaded with tons of crown conchs. Although crown conchs are ubiquitous in Florida, they are abnormally abundant on our St. Augustine reefs and our St. Augustine reefs are mostly dead. All our other sites have relatively healthy looking oyster reefs and few crown conchs.
But a few miles north of our monitoring reefs, we find absolutely no crown conchs and the health of the oysters is great. Because crown conchs, as has been shown by the research of our very own Doc Herrnkind, love eating oysters, it’s easy to conclude that crown conchs have mowed down all the oysters on our monitoring reefs. But why are they restricted only to our monitoring reefs? Is there a predator of conchs present north of reefs but that is absent on our monitoring reefs? Perhaps the environment has changed in a way that killed all of the oysters and the crown conchs are just cleaning up the mess.
Luckily, Hanna has agreed to enter my lab as a graduate student to tackle this research project. So, she spent a number of days collecting coarse-scale data on the spatial extent of this conch-oyster pattern, consulting with locals about when this pattern developed, and talking with an oceanographer about how to learn whether and how the physical environment has lead to this pattern. In a forthcoming post, I’ll let Hanna fill you in on the details of this new project, which we will be implementing quickly. This is really important to the local community because our monitoring reefs and the conch infested area used to be the most productive area in St. Augustine for harvesting oysters and rearing clams. But now, aquaculture leases here have been abandoned and a very large population of crown conchs appears to have taken up residence.
Stay tuned for Hanna’s post later this week, she’ll go into a little more detail on what we’re doing.
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
On Wednesday, June 29 at 7:30 PM/ET, WFSU-TV premieres the In the Grass, On the Reef full length documentary. David and Randall guide us through the world of coastal predators (like crown conchs). Top predators maintain important ecosystems like salt marshes and oyster reefs- but the manner in which they do this may not be confined to eating prey. Tune in to find out more!
When I heard it was supposed to rain on Saturday, I was a little bummed. I was planning on taking the family to the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab Open House followed by the FSU Spring Game (where my 12-week old son could attend his first football game featuring my two favorite teams). Luckily, the storms rolled through early in the morning and made for a nice day at the coast.
I started off by visiting my friends at the Randall Hughes and David Kimbro labs. Robyn and Emily held down the fort in the Hughes lab, where kids watched a very peculiar sport. As Randall’s previous post promised, there were indeed periwinkle snail races. As you can see from the photo at the right here, the snails were color coded (white and blue) and numbered so that they could be told apart. Some crown conchs (periwinkle predators) were placed into the tubs to give the smaller snails some incentive to climb. The fastest climbers won. Let’s watch part of one race:
A listing of the animals seen in the slideshow is at the end of this post.
March is Seagrass Awareness Month, so it seems a fitting time to share some photos we took last fall. Seagrass beds are an under-appreciated habitat; they’re very productive and are more important than meets the eye (here I admit that neither seagrass beds or salt marshes seemed all that interesting to me until I actually went into them and took a closer look). Here are a few quick facts: Continue reading Seagrass Awareness Month→