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!
This week, we take a short break from oysters and the ecology of fear for a new EcoAdventure. We’ll be back in oysters next week, as we look at fear and coastal predators and find out about an ongoing experiment on Florida’s East Coast. It’s an iteration of the tile experiment examined in this video (and which we will explore more fully in a couple of weeks). This is a research method Randall, David & co. perfected during their NSF funded oyster study and which David will soon take to his Apalachicola Bay study. Stay tuned!
In the video, Justin Riney says, “A lot of people don’t think conservation or history is that sexy.” As a television producer who mainly works to create content on these and similar topics (namely ecology), I appreciate the creativity with which he has designed his mission. Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) has become immensely popular over the last few years, and I have to admit that it made for a cool entrance as we waited for Justin to see him appear in the distance and see him paddle his way up to the beach.
A few interesting tidbits:
Justin’s travel plans call for him paddling a relatively short ten miles a day. This allows him to stop in the towns he passes and get to know people along the way. The plan calls for paddling on six out of seven days a week. The extra days come in handy when weather delays him.
Justin takes a picture of me taking a picture of the trash found during the Dickerson Bay Ocean Hour cleanup on February 2.
Ocean Hour, the other main initiative of Justin’s Mother Ocean project, has active participation on four of the seven continents (anyone up for Ocean Hour Antarctica?). Ocean Hour is from 9 to 10 AM every Saturday, anywhere that people want to go to a coast and clean up.
One of Expedition Florida 500′s partners is Viva Florida 500. You can learn more about events celebrating the 500 years since Juan Ponce de León’s arrival in Florida here.
When Justin was going over what he packed for his yearlong trip, he mentioned books. This intrigued me, as a year’s worth of reading seems like a lot of weight to carry on a SUP. What he does is trade books along the way, usually reading about the places he’s visiting. During his time in Wakulla, he read books by Gulf Specimen Marine Lab’s Jack Rudloe, at whose home he was staying.
The video above took place entirely on the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which has become one of my favorite places to shoot (and visit). Dickerson Bay is part of the Panacea Unit, off of Bottoms Road. As you drive down Bottoms, there is a nice sized salt marsh on either side of you in which there are usually plenty of birds (the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sign on Highway 98 outside of Panacea is the signal to slow down before your turn). I first went there with Jack Rudloe, who dragged a net in the water and gave us a quick lesson in marsh ecology from the animals he caught (and quickly released). The WHO festival took place in the St. Marks Unit, the central unit of the Refuge. There were plenty of birds in Lighthouse Pond, as there were when we visited last year when Migratory Shorebirds were making use of the extensive wetlands on the property.
Last week, Dr. David Kimbro broke nutrients and oysters down for us. But what if oysters are too scared to eat the nutrient fed plankton they need to survive? David and Randall take us another step closer to understanding the Ecology of Fear, examining oysters’ choices and how their behavior affects the important habitat they create. Stay tuned over the following weeks as they unravel the relationships between predators and prey on oyster reefs and their neighboring coastal ecosystems. We’ll also continue to follow David’s crew in Apalachicola, Hanna and Stephanie, as they research the oyster fishery crisis.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
I recently moved and was faced with the dilemma of finding a place to live. This can be a touch decision, especially when you’re in a new city or town. Which neighborhood has the best schools? The best coffee shop? Friendly neighbors? Low crime? My solution was to find something short-term while I scope the place out some more, and then I can decide on something more permanent. (As anyone who has me in their address book knows, “permanent” is a very relative term – I have changed residences a lot over the last 15-20 years!) But imagine you had just one shot – one, for your whole life – to decide where to settle down. Talk about a tough decision! That’s what oysters have to do, because once they settle down and glue themselves to their location of choice, they don’t have the opportunity to move around any more. So how do they decide?
This oyster shell, harvested from an intertidal St. George Island reef, had been settled by multiple young oysters called spat. Spat grow into mature oysters with a hard shell, fused with the oyster on which they originally landed. Clumps of attached oysters form a crucial coastal habitat.
It turns out that oyster larvae (baby oysters swimming in the water) can use a number of “cues” to help them in the house-hunting process. First of all, they can detect calcium carbonate, the material that makes up oyster shells (and other things) – if there’s lots of calcium carbonate in an area, that could be a good sign that it’s an oyster reef. (Or it could be a sign that people have put a lot of cement blocks in the water in the hopes that oysters will settle and create a reef – that’s how a lot of oyster restoration projects are started.) Some recent research even shows that oysters can detect the sounds of an oyster reef, and then swim in that direction! Maybe these guys are smarter than we think…
Regardless of how oysters decide, there are times when we are also faced with the question of what makes good oyster habitat, or deciding which area is better than another. As scientists, we turn to experiments. One type of experiment that we have perfected over the years involves getting juvenile oysters- (either from the field, which can be pretty difficult -as you can see from the first round of our tile experiment, or from a hatchery), and gluing them to portable sections of “reef” (ceramic tiles weighed down by bricks). LOTS of ceramic tiles and bricks. We’re talking 800+ ceramic tiles and 700+ bricks last summer alone! That’s enough to make a path that is ~2 football fields long. All moved by truck, hand, boat, hand, kayak, and hand to their temporary location on a reef (and then moved back again when the experiment is done). But I digress.
In the second incarnation of the tile experiment, oyster spat were attached to tiles with an epoxy used in the repair of boat hulls. The tiles in the first version- the ones in the video above- were assembled differently. In a video we'll premiere later this month, we'll look at the twists and turns the experiment took.
After attaching the juvenile oysters to the tiles with a lovely substance known as z-spar, we enclose some tiles in cages to protect them from oyster predators, and we leave others with no cage so they are “open” to predators. (There’s also a 3rd group – the “cage control” – that get 1/2 a cage so we can test whether the cage has effects on the oysters other than keeping out the predators.) Then we take our oyster tiles and put them out in the field at different sites that we want to test. By observing the survival and growth of the ones in the cage (where no predators have access), we can get a general sense for whether it’s a good environment or not. Lots of large, live oysters are a sign of a good environment – plenty of food, good salinity (not too salty or too fresh), good temperature, etc. Also, by comparing the survival of the ones in a cage vs. not in a cage, we can get an idea of how many predators are around – lots of live oysters in the cage and none out of the cage is a pretty good sign that oysters are getting eaten. (If oysters in the cage are dead and oysters outside of the cage are missing, it’s a little tougher to figure out exactly what’s causing it, but it’s clearly not a good place for oysters to live!)
Experimental spat tiles at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve- open, closed, and partially open.
Of course, the oysters themselves don’t know whether they are nice and safe inside our cages, or easy pickings for a predator. So if there are lots of predators lurking around the reef, the oysters may try to “hide”. Obviously, hiding for an oyster does not mean packing up and moving elsewhere, but they do have a few tools at their disposal. In the short term, the oysters can choose not to open up their shells and feed (filter water) as often. This strategy has 2 benefits – 1, they are less vulnerable to predators when their shells are closed and 2, they aren’t releasing lots of invisible chemical cues in the water when they’re closed, so it’s harder for the predators to tell they are there. But as any of you who have been sticking to your New Year’s resolution to lose weight will know, there’s only so long that you can go without eating before that strategy loses its appeal! Over the longer term, the oysters can decide to devote more of the energy that they get from eating to create a thicker, stronger, rougher shell, rather than plumping up their tissues.
So, those are the big-time decisions that an oyster faces: where to live, and when to eat. Sounds kind of familiar…
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.
Hanna Garland and Stephanie Buhler harvest oysters from sample reefs in Apalachicola Bay.
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.
Sea birds on a guano island off the coast of Peru. (zand.net)
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.
Slide by Ashley R. Smyth, Piehler Lab, UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences.
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.
Dr. Mike Piehler, presenting to his collaborators Dr. Jeb Byers (Right), Dr. Jon Grabowski (reclined on couch), Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro (out of frame). These five researchers have worked on oyster reef ecology since their time at the University of North Carolina. Three years ago, the National Science Foundation funded research into their ideas about predators and fear on oyster reefs.
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.
Hanna harvests oysters in shallow water.
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.
From left to right- Shawn Hartsfield, their captain; Stephanie Buhler; and Alex Chequer, FSU's Dive Safety Officer. Alex went along on the first day to ensure that all of their dive equipment was operating safely.
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.
I love how David’s story evolves in the segment above. At first, he concentrates on the oysters and their point of view in the Apalachicola fishery crisis. It’s the biological approach. After workshopping his story with Randy Olson, his story takes on a different aspect. It’s about why he’s getting involved. It’s the personal approach. The story is still about David and his colleagues studying the reefs in Apalachicola Bay to determine how best to rehabilitate them, but the hook is different. It’s one of the stories we’ll be following in what should be another busy year on In the Grass, On the Reef.
Before we look forward to 2013, though, I wanted to look at the stories that made 2012 our busiest year to date:
Funded by the NSF
It took a couple of years, but in July we received a Communicating Research to Public Audiences grant from the National Science Foundation. The name of that grant is meaningful, and it embodies a background narrative of this project: the work it takes to make an average person care about scientific research. Researchers know why their work is important, they just don’t always know how to present why it’s interesting. That’s why we had Dr. Olson come in and put on a workshop for research students (and Randall and David). So why is Randall and David’s research important?
Ecology is Economy
In short, biology affects people’s livelihoods. The seafood connection is obvious: over 90% of the species that are commercially fished in the Gulf of Mexico spend some part of their life cycles in one of the three estuarine habitats that we follow: oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds. We saw that oysters offer more to the seafood industry than their meat. And we’re starting to see the effects of a full-scale ecosystem failure on a community (more on that below). The non-seafood related benefits were surprising to me. A rugby field sized patch of salt marsh can save $8,000 in storm surge related property damage. Seagrass beds are the most effective habitat at storing carbon from the atmosphere. And in a state as reliant on tourism dollars as Florida, you can’t overlook the ecotourism potential of our coastlines. Last spring, we went down to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge when migratory shore birds were making their way through. The refuge’s vast salt marshes are an all-you-can-eat buffet for those birds, and you have to figure that without healthy rivers and coasts, our state’s multi-billion dollar wildlife watching revenue would be imperiled.
Away from the coasts, I enjoyed exploring the geology of the Aucilla Sinks and the rare plants of the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve. The Buffer is part of the Apalachicola River basin, and those plants rely on that water just as the oysters in the bay do. Which brings us to:
The Apalachicola Crisis
Earlier that afternoon, oystermen were demonstrating how few oysters there were in Apalachicola Bay for the Army Corps of Engineers. At a reception later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they shucked oysters for community members. Despite doubling in price over the last year, there aren't enough oysters to maintain the fishery.
At this time last year, when we were waiting to hear whether we got the NSF grant, I was looking forward to some of the things we would do. I knew that, as we explored the economic benefits of oysters, I would end up on an oyster boat. It would be fun to watch tongs bring up mounds of succulent Apalachicola oysters. My first time on an oyster boat didn’t exactly go that way. As the year wore on, I started planning for RiverTrek 2012. That was every bit as amazing an experience as I expected it to be, but Helen Light’s presentation on the state of the basin that first night underscored everything that happened after. Crisis drives a lot of media coverage; it attracts viewers. I don’t think Apalachicola needs crisis to be interesting, though. I first visited in 2002 while working on WFSU’s Our Town series. Each Our Town episode first aired during a pledge drive, and Our Town: Apalachicola was far and away the most successful, with over 50 new members pledging their support to our station. And it was my favorite. A couple of months after we premiered it at the Dixie Theatre, I came back for my birthday. My wife and I camped out on St. George Island, went across the bay to get oysters and had drinks at the Gibson Inn. So this isn’t the story I wanted to tell. But there is something to be learned from this about oyster reef ecology and our connection to it.
As David and his crew gear up to investigate more closely, that story will continue here. Also, Randall and David’s two multi-year, NSF funded studies are concluding. They put their ideas to the test: Does the fear of being eaten by large predators have a significant effect on coastal ecosystems and all that they give us? And, it’s a word we hear a lot, but what role does biodiversity play in the success of a salt marsh and its services? Stay tuned.
Shopping for gifts this winter? May I suggest one of these unique Kimbro Lab inventions, available for a limited time:
Debuted by technician Evan after conveniently breaking his hand before a long stint of marine field work, this dual glove and zip tie hybrid can protect a non-removable cast from seawater and spray, while allowing for finger mobility and dexterity. Lightweight and available in an array of fashionable colors. (Not waterproof when fully submerged.)
Need to extract stone crabs from their burrows, but worried about losing a finger? Try out Evan’s latest invention for prying stubborn crustaceans from their subterranean homes. Forged of the highest quality rebar available, this tool is optimally angled for maximum crab-removal effectiveness. Highly durable, with antique rust finish and a handle for increased leverage.
These stunning olive-green pendants are artfully fashioned by Tanya from leftover quantities of our favorite marine epoxy. Monofilament chain included. Inquire about her complete line of z-spar jewelry and sculpture. Custom pieces available.
We hope you enjoyed this last little bit of fun for the year. When we come back in 2013, Randall Hughes and David Kimbro get serious about animal behavior. The consequences of oyster, crab, and conch behavior could mean life or death, or life in fear. And as research begins in the decimated oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay, they’ll put their theories about predators to the test.
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.
Like Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, Dr. Randy Olson is a scientist who wants to make science understandable to a general audience. Dr. Olson’s passion for communicating science led him to USC School of Cinema and a second career in film making. He will be here next week to help bring the inner storyteller our of twelve graduate students, and he’s brought his latest film with him. We hope you can join us.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Stories of high school football never grow old!
There’s nothing like lots of time with family over Thanksgiving to drive home the fact that some people are inherently better storytellers than others. How else could you stand to listen to the same story about the come-from-behind, last-minute win (that I witnessed first-hand) year in and year out? Or have someone recount something as mundane as a TV commercial and have you falling out of your seat laughing? Or watch an impersonation of a dog’s attempts to garner some attention that is funnier than the original video? My family is blessed with a number of good storytellers, and I’ll confess that I’m not one of them. So is there any hope for me?
If you’d asked me that question a few years ago, I would have answered with a resounding “No”. I’ve always considered storytelling as one of those innate gifts that some people have and others don’t, with me in the latter category. For one, I prefer to write things down, organizing and re-organizing my thoughts on the page until I get them just right. That way, if I forget the ‘punch line’, I can come back to it later, a strategy that definitely doesn’t work well when telling a joke aloud! Also, I’m much more comfortable coalescing others’ ideas into an organized fashion for a fact-based paper than creating a novel story from scratch (think English 101 vs. Creative Writing). But other than not being the most entertaining relative at family gatherings, does my inability to tell a good story really matter?
Early mornings in the field do wonders for sibling relationships!
This time, I’d have to answer “Yes”. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more concerned about the disconnect between the scientific world and the “everyday” world. (The fact that it’s acceptable to suggest that science is somehow divorced from everyday life without raising lots of eyebrows is an indication of what I’m talking about.) And I think part of the responsibility for fixing this divide lies with scientists, in that we need to do a better job of explaining to our friends and family (for starters) why our work matters to them. But only the closest and most devoted of relatives (thank you, Mama Jennie!) will read my scientific publications, and only the most in need of a job (here’s looking at you, Jules!) will commit to working as my research assistant for a summer to learn the ins and outs of what I do. So we’re back to the need for me to tell a story, and a good story at that, to grab people’s interest and inspire them to want to know more.
Randall being interviewed by WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas at the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab in July 2010.
Enter my collaboration with WFSU. Just prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I had a meeting with Kim Kelling-Engstrom about the possibilities of a joint effort to communicate David’s and my research to a general audience with help from the professionals at WFSU. When the spill occurred, the impetus to document our research on the amazing coastal ecosystems of northern Florida became even more urgent, and we launched this blog. For someone who rarely agrees to having my picture taken, it was a big leap to regularly go in front of a camera and talk about what I do, and why I think it’s important. And it’s been a steep learning curve! But I’m beginning to realize (hope?) that telling a story is a lot like playing sports – some people start with a leg up in the talent department, but everyone gets better with practice.
So how do you learn to tell a convincing story? What are the tricks of the trade? To find out more, David and I have invited Dr. Randy Olson, the self-described scientist-turned-filmmaker, to come give a workshop at FSU this month on just this topic. The workshop is for science graduate students interested in learning how to better communicate their ideas and research to a general audience. Randy went to graduate school at Harvard and had a tenured faculty position in marine biology at the University of New Hampshire until he decided to leave his job and enroll in the University of Southern California School of Cinema. Since finishing film school, he’s directed several entertaining and thought-provoking films, as well as written a book about communicating science. So he’s rather uniquely qualified to speak about the particular pitfalls that plague scientists when it comes to telling a good story, as well as how to overcome them.
I’ll be listening in carefully during the workshop, and I’m sure I’ll have some useful tips to share with you (and implement) on this blog in the weeks following. We’re also excited that Randy has offered to do a screening of his movie Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy at the FSU Student Life Cinema at 7pm on Tuesday, December 11. The movie will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr. Olson and several FSU faculty members. The event is free and open to all who are interested, so come join us!
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.
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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.
One time "In the Grass..." contributor and Apalachicola author Dawn Evans Radford has posted the short story "Oyster Hound," about a dog with a "gormay nose for fat juicy oysters..."
The icons in the rounded boxes at the top of every post let you know where they fit within the "Master Plan" of this site. Click them to find out what they mean. For some more tips on getting the most out of your "In the Grass, On the Reef" experience, click here.