In the Grass, On the Reef Science isn't all lab coats and beakers! Trudge through the muck of our local salt marshes and oyster reefs - habitats crucial to our area's coastal flora and fauna - without getting your shoes dirty!
The species on this page are typical of a north Florida salt marsh. Dr. Randall Hughes is conducting an NSF funded study on biodiversity in salt marshes, and included in the descriptions are links to blog posts related to that study.
Smooth Cordgrass(Spartina alterniflora)
Cordgrass is often the dominant species of the coastal salt marsh.
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Cordgrass is often the dominant species of the coastal salt marsh. It is the “foundation species” of a salt marsh, creating the habitat and offering shelter (in the Florida Gulf) to periwinkle snails, blue crabs, fiddler crabs, crown conch, and young mullet, among others. Spartina accumulates sediment, solidifying and expanding landmass along the coast. It also acts as a filter for nutrients carried by rainwater to coastal waters.
Spartina reproduces in two ways. Its rhizomes can split apart, with each segment becoming a different individual with identical genetic composition. This is clonal reproduction. They also produce flowers and seeds towards the end of summer.
Periwinkles climb cordgrass (Spartina) to evade their predators, which include crown conchs and blue crabs. While they do not feed on Spartina directly, they can cause the plant considerable damage. They puncture the blades of grass with their radula, consuming fungus that then grows on the scar. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was a large die off of marsh habitat in the southeast. Research by Dr. Brian Silliman concluded that cordgrass, weakened by drought, was being mowed down by periwinkles. Randall Hughes is following up this research, investigating the role biodiversity plays in strengthening a marsh against snails and other disturbances, natural or man made.
Does the threat of predation cause the periwinkles to become frozen with fear? Or, having been chased up the cordgrass, will they eat more of it? Click here for the video.
Grasshopper(suborder Caelifera of the order Orthoptera)
As anyone with a backyard garden is aware, grasshoppers are prodigious consumers of plants.
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As anyone with a backyard garden is aware, grasshoppers are prodigious consumers of plants. During low tide in a salt marsh, a plant on which grasshoppers dine is smooth cordgrass, the foundation species of a coastal salt marsh.
Who can eat more cordgrass, grasshoppers or periwinkles? Watch here.
The crown conch is a main predator of the Gulf Coast salt marsh, feeding on periwinkle snails. Crown conchs play a role on oyster reefs as well, consuming oysters by inserting their proboscis between an oyster’s valves.
By feeding on and scaring these periwinkle snails, does the crown conch benefit or harm the marsh? Find the video here.
Blue Crab(Callinectes sapidus)
A popular delicacy (for humans) in this habitat is the blue crab, which is the crab used to make Maryland crab cakes.
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A popular delicacy in this habitat is the blue crab, which is the crab used to make Maryland crab cakes. Increasingly, Maryland imports their crabs from Florida, which has more robust habitats for them. On oyster reefs and in salt marshes, blue crabs are important predators that help control populations of oyster drills, mud crabs, and periwinkle snails.
2011 Statewide Commercial Landings
Hard-Shell Blue Crab: 10,018,045 lbs., $11,434,093
Soft-Shell Blue Crab: 74,926 lbs., $562,425
Other Animals of the Marsh
Fiddler Crab(Uca pugilator or Uca panacea, locally)
Fiddlers are so named for the male’s “fiddle claw”.
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Fiddlers are so named for the male’s “fiddle claw,” their oversized claw. If the crab loses the fiddle claw, the opposite claw grows into the fiddle the next time they molt. Fiddlers are also popular pets. Their main importance in a salt marsh comes from the burrows in which they live. Scattered throughout the salt marsh, these holes allow oxygen to reach the cordgrass root system. By providing this oxygen, they ensure that the cordgrass that gives them shelter from predators.
The pinfish gets its name from the sharp spines in its dorsal fin.
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The pinfish gets its name from the sharp spines in its dorsal fin. It is a main food of the gag grouper, and is a popular bait fish. So, while it is not directly consumed by humans, it is an important part of our own food web.
Mussels have a mutually beneficial relationship with Spartina. The base of Spartina plants provide a place for mussels to attach to and clump together. In return, the mussels provide stability for Spartina along the edge of a marsh. The mussels also filter water and provide nutrients to the plants.
Striped Mullet(Mugil cephalus)
Striped mullet is an international fish, found along coastlines of every continent except Antarctica.
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Striped mullet is an international fish, found along coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. Along the Forgotten Coast, mullet spend their juvenile years in salt marshes. There they find shelter from predators. As an adult, one of its main predators are humans, who value it as both food and bait. Mullet carrying roe are especially prized and are worth much more at fish markets.
Other Plants of the Marsh
Needlerush is often found further inland in a salt marsh, as it has a lower tolerance to salinity than cordgrass.
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Needlerush is often found further inland in a salt marsh, as it has a lower tolerance to salinity than cordgrass. When both cordgrass and needlerush are present, periwinkles will often climb the taller needlerush, though they do not feed on it.
Sea Lavendar(Limonium carolinianum)
Sea lavender is an herb that grows among marsh grasses. It blooms in the Summer months (June through August).
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Sea lavender grows is an herb that grows among marsh grasses. It blooms in the Summer months (June through August).
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Explore Our Coasts
Dr. David Kimbro and Dr. Randall Hughes work to unlock the secrets of the intertidal ecosystems that make up our coasts. In a series of short videos, they explore the inner workings of salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds as well as the ways in which we enjoy what they offer us. Join us as we kayak, snorkel, and wade the wet and wild of the Forgotten Coast.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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A Cultural Tour of Apalachicola
The Florida Humanities Council hosts gatherings that include tours guided by scholars, local cultural and civic leaders, and long-time members of the community. These tours allow you to experience the rich cultural history of various Florida locations.
The Gathering in Apalachicola will take place March 14-16. Anyone wishing to attend must register through the Florida Humanities Council.
Click here for more information on the Florida Humanities Council and their tour of Apalachicola.
2014 St. Vincent Open House
Friday, March 28
9:00 AM - 3:00 PM/ET
St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Supporters of St. Vincent are sponsoring their annual Open House on March 28th. They are providing transportation to the island in order to give people easy access to the St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge for a full day of nature-related activities. The event will be free to the public and will allow people to learn about the Island's protected wildlife, diverse ecosystems, and history as well as enjoy the beauty of this unique, uninhabited refuge.
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