Acoustic Tracking Research of Coastal Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

By Cheston Peterson, PhD. Student, Florida State University

Under the advisement of FSUCML’s Dr. Dean Grubbs, FSU doctoral students Bryan Keller and Cheston Peterson are conducting active acoustic tracking of two species of coastal sharks: bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo) and bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas).  Completing the research team is FSU undergraduate Ashley Dawdy, 2018 recipient of the Helen Louise Lee Undergraduate Research Award.

The team is collaborating to conduct this labor-intensive field work to estimate daily activity space and apply the data to several questions. For her research work, Ashley is studying the effects of tide and diel cycles on movement patterns and habitat use of these species in Apalachicola Bay, Florida.  Cheston Peterson is studying the effects of prey distribution and predation risk on the movement and activity space of mid-level predators such as bonnethead sharks and gafftopsail catfish (Bagre marinus). Bryan Keller, recipient of a Save Our Seas Foundation Small Grant, is interested in determining if bonnethead sharks use magnetic cues to navigate.  Using data on the sharks’ home range obtained through this tracking, in the future he will displace sharks and determine if they use magnetic cues to return home.

The research starts with catching a bonnethead or bull shark, collecting data about the shark on board the research boat and surgically implanting the shark with an acoustic tracker.  The shark is then released and the fun begins.

The team then actively tracks the shark’s movements using a hydrophone and  acoustic receiver, following the movements of the shark for 52 continual hours.  The team of course stops the track should weather become an issue or the shark is lost. 



The team began this work in late May 2018 and will continue until late summer of 2018 and repeat the activity in 2019 with a goal of tracking 10 sharks of each species.

Check back to this blog for Ashley’s updates on how the research is going.





Julia of St Teresa

On May 1, 2017 Dr Chip Cotton, faculty at the Florida State Coastal and Marine Lab, led a group of people into the dark, choppy water on a blustery and rainy day.  The winds had been heavy that day and an adult loggerhead sea turtle had been pushed into the boat basin.  Normally these giants do not pay heed to simple things like wind, but this particular turtle was unable to dive.  With this handicap she was at the mercy of the 15 knot gusts that were present at the surface and had been blown down the coast until the winds popped her into our basin where she struggled to regain course.

The Marine Lab staff noticed her and quickly determined that something was impeding her ability to submerge.  The winds started to abate and the big turtle slowly started paddling on the surface, making only slight headway.  She would swim five feet and be blown backwards four, only to begin swimming on the surface again.


As she rounded the corner to exit the basin, Dr Cotton realized that soon she would be in deeper water and we would need a boat to save her. Lacking the equipment to haul a turtle of this size safely into a boat, the decision was made to immediately wade out into the water in order to round her up and get her treatment.  Often times these buoyancy issues do not resolve pleasantly when left in the wild.

So into the turbid water they went.  Chip circled ahead of her in water nearly up to his neck while Dr Jeroen Ingles and Travis Mohrman attempted to flank her.  All the while Julia continued her feeble surface paddling. Now out of the basin, the wind was blowing her along the coast again.  As the three men began closing the figurative net around her, she seemed to notice and began swimming with more urgency.  As Chip grabbed onto the back of her carapace (top part of shell) she mustered the energy to give one strong stroke and broke free!  It was a good sign that she still had that much strength but on the second attempt we all realized that she had used her last bit of gas.  She was one exhausted turtle and did not resist capture at all after that.  7


While the water rescue was taking place, a phone call had been made to Bill Wargo, Director of the nearby Alligator Point Sea Turtle Program.  Mr Wargo operates under FWC marine turtle permit 151 and was needed to aid in the rescue.  Once ashore, the group of would-be rescuers couldn’t help but stare in fascination at the veritable mini-ecosystem living on the carapace of this animal as she lay exhausted in a shallow pool. Her shell was thick with algae and had several good-sized barnacles; there was even a tiny crab scuttling around.


This turtle was quite large at over 150 pounds!  FSU Coastal and Marine Lab got in touch with Gulf World Marine Institute who sent a crew over to pick the sick girl up for treatment.  9They arrived a short while later and used a sort of ‘sea turtle swaddling cloth’ to properly support her while she was loaded up for treatment at the institute.

For three and a half months Julia received top care.  An examination revealed pneumonia was the cause of her severe buoyancy issues and so Gulf World Marine Institute treated her with antibiotics and kept her well fed and comfortable throughout her convalescence.  The FSU Coastal and Marine Lab checked in periodically to hear how our new friend was doing and we were all delighted to learn of her steady progression towards good health.


Finally the day came when Julia’s radiograph showed no signs of the pneumonia that had plagued her fragile system. As her illness dissipated so did her buoyancy problem.  She was even foraging for food on her own at the institute – we assume this meant she was sneaking out of her enclosure at night to snatch whelks and urchins from nearby tanks but we never asked for clarification.


On a gorgeous mid-August afternoon, on the white sand beaches of St George Island State Park, Julia’s day had finally come.  Over 100 people, some from as far away as Millstadt, IL, gathered from all around to watch the release. Children squirmed impatiently upon the shoulders of adults, hoping for a better view of the rarely seen creature. Staff from the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium and the Florida Park Service were also on hand to help get the big girl safely into the water.  During treatment they had estimated her age at 25 years old and most certainly the last few months had been on the stranger side of all those years.


The handlers lifted her back up in a similar blue wrapping and carried her down the surf line.  They had mentioned that usually the turtles hurry into the water once freed from the carrier, but instead, Julia paused.  She sat there upon the wet sand while the crowd of people all held their breath, waiting for her next move.  Julia looked around for nearly 30 seconds, slowly blinking those big eyelids and taking the salt air into her newly cleared lungs.  Finally, having settled whatever gave her pause, she pushed off with those powerful back flippers, pulled forward with the front ones, and glided into the surf with her freshly cleaned carapace.  The crowd clapped and laughed with delight, children ventured into the surf to watch her shell barely skim the surface as she slipped along; back out to sea to begin her next adventure.

The faces in the crowd were still plastered with big grins as Julia swam farther and farther out until she was past a small shoal.
Then, after more than three months, Julia dove.



Can 3D Printed Corals Enhance Larval Recruitment to Degraded Reefs?


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SB keys 2017

By Abigail Engleman, Florida State University Ph.D. Gradate Student, Advisor Dr. Sandra Brooke- August 2017

Update- April 2018: All settlement units were destroyed in Hurricane Irma, September 2017. The units have since been removed. The project will be repeated Summer 2018. New settlement tiles will also feature embedding chemical morphogens to further enhance larval settlement.

Shortly after sunrise, we loaded boxes of 3D printed coral onto the boat deck, hoping they could survive the painstakingly long ride up north to the research site. I clinched my fists as the boat jumped through the waves. “How are they doing back there, Anthony?” I yelled. “Still surviving,” he shouted. After 90 minutes of anxious anticipation, we arrived at the site and removed the coral tiles from their box. I let out a sigh of relief as I realized, they were all in one piece. These coral replicates had successfully endured their 600-mile journey from Tallahassee to their deployment site in the Florida Keys.

On July 24-28, 2017, 96 settlement tiles and 144 coral replicates were deployed in waters surrounding the Coral Restoration Foundation’s Coral Nursery. The settlement tiles were designed to mimic abiotic characteristics of natural reefs. In three months, they will be removed and assessed to determine if the organic structure of these man-made pieces is enough to fool coral larvae into calling them home, and protect them for long-term recruitment.


Reefs that fall victim to physical disturbance offer limited hard surfaces for new coral larvae to attach to. Deploying ships and other man-made structures is a traditional method of restoring and rehabilitating fully or partially degraded reefs. These man-made structures provide substratum that is otherwise unavailable, which fish and invertebrates use as habitat. The three-dimensional characteristics of these structures are important determinants for which assemblage of species will populate them. Many studies have pinpointed the structural designs necessary to attract economically important fish, but what level of complexity is needed to recruit coral—the reef builders— to a man-made substrate?

To address this question, I designed settlement tiles that mimic the structural complexities found on natural reef environments. These settlement tiles were designed— in collaboration with Florida State University’s High Performance Materials Institute— using 3D modeling software. The 3D model was used to cut a frame for silicone molds, which were used to pour flat settlement tiles and tiles with rows of 1 cm3 crevices. Each tile was created using aragonite sand and neutralized- Portland cement.


A second level of structural complexity was tested by scanning, modeling, and 3D printing coral replicates. These coral replicates were attached to both flat and crevice tiles to assess whether their presence provides additional refuge for increased larval recruitment. Ideally, the small crevices will encourage larval settlement and offer initial protection, while the coral replicate will act to slow down the ambient water flow, provide shading, and further protection against predators. The combination tiles (crevices and 3D coral replicates) will test the synergistic effect of natural reef complexities on coral recruitment.


The tiles were deployed in six units throughout the site. In mid-December, the tiles will be removed and analyzed for size, species, and abundance of coral recruits. These findings will provide insight into optimal artificial substrate design for enhancing coral recruitment and improving large-scale reef restoration efforts.

abbey - anthony


** All necessary permits were received prior to conducting this research



Hillside Mystery at the FSU Lab


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By Chester Butler (University of Florida Master Naturalist)

A biologist, an anthropologist and an insurance marketer enter the forest…sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? Not so.


Donna Ingle, the biologist

The biologist is Donna Ingle. Donna was the first female oyster inspector in Florida and currently helps run an aircraft parts business. She dreams of starting an art gallery. Nevertheless, she has not lost her curiosity about all things natural.


John Moran, the anthropologist

The anthropologist is John Moran. John is a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. By interviewing residents, he is documenting the environmental culture in the Florida Panhandle. No small endeavor when you consider the struggle Floridians face in coping with environmental change.


Chester Butler, the insurance marketing executive

The insurance marketing executive, that’s me, Chester Butler.  Upon retiring I moved back to my home state of Florida. Things were not as they were 40 years before. Touring my old haunts, I was shocked by the environmental degradation I saw.

John and Donna were way ahead of me on the reasons why Florida has so many environmental challenges. They had lived part of the change.  All three of us enrolled in the University of Florida Master Naturalist Program, eager to learn more about the changes in the environment we saw every day and how to live with them.

The Master Naturalist Program is designed to bring awareness and understanding to those of us who want to understand the dramatic environmental challenges we face. The program also trains candidates to be focused observers in three different environments: freshwater wetlands eco-systems, coastal eco-systems and upland eco-systems.

Our instructors, Rosalyn Kilcollins and William Sheftall, are dedicated, knowledgeable and experienced naturalists. They were patient as they challenged us to study, observe, and then draw our own conclusions. Then pointed out to us other possible explanations and conclusions.  They provided “On the Job” training for budding naturalists. In fact, every student must participate in three hands-on projects before a designation is awarded.

In the late spring of 2016, Rosalyn suggested that John, Donna, and I might want to contact the Florida State University Marine Laboratory about using their property for our Uplands project. The Lab was to be expanded in the near future, and on a hillside adjacent to that proposed site, there were Long Leaf pines they wanted to preserve. We jumped at the chance.

The FSU Lab agreed to allow us to work on their property and asked Christopher Matechik, a Lab assistant, to orientate us. Chris was already at work on the hillside of about 70 acres that we were to use as our study area. He and volunteers had mechanically and manually removed years of undergrowth and duff on the lower hillside; no small endeavor. The site was due for its first prescribed burn in the fall of 2016.

We asked Chris what kind of work had been done on the site in the past. He said there was little to tell. Loran B. Anderson, PhD., the well-known Florida State University botanist, had completed a plant survey. There had been some dumping of dredged material on the site at some point in the recent past. Chris supplied us with maps of the property and Dr. Anderson’s plant survey.


A few days later, Chris and I were on the property clearing duff from around the base of Long Leaf and Slash Pines, prepping for the burn. Too much fuel around the roots and the rootlets burn. That could kill a tree. Natural fire moves quickly through the landscape, so the regenerative aspects of fire are delivered to the forest and the heavy destruction is avoided. That is if the forest is burned regularly and in the proper season. The application of restorative fire is unique to pine forests. Foresters said that even with the removal of the duff and woody understory, this hillside was too dry to burn. They would wait until fall to burn.

“So have you and your partners come up with a project?,” Chris asked.

“No, we’ve talked about a lot of things but no agreement yet,” I replied.  I went on, “Donna is focused on the Long Leaf restoration. John has spotted a cat-faced tree. So he is wondering what went on with this patch of land over the years. Me, well, I am thinking maybe we could do a habitant study. Frankly, we are  a bit stuck.”

“Why don’t you just come up with a hypothesis and then test it, to see if it’s right or wrong?” Chris asked.

Chris is well schooled in the scientific method and he was giving me more credit than I deserved. Luckily, my partners were more familiar with this type of investigative procedure.

Nevertheless, Donna, John and I did observe something that was to set the stage for our investigation of the site. The Slash and Long Leaf Pines were interspersed on the lower 40 acres of hillside. Higher up the hill, there was a band of Titi and then a grassland-like area. We had noted this from aerial photos but did not realize what significance it might have for the pines.

busting-brush-on-westside-of-siteWe also noticed that some of the Long Leaf Pines had developed flattened tops. This usually indicates that a tree had reached its mature size. Long Leaf Pines can live 400 years. But these trees did not appear to be that old. The Slash Pines did not show this characteristic. Why not, we wondered?

On the day we made these observations, we spotted a Sharp Shinned Hawk and we’d see this bird again on our visits. He was taking advantage of the prey available now that the thick layer of duff, palmetto and other woody shrubs had been removed. Our conversation, and our stumbling as we stared up at the pine canopy, ruined his breakfast foray and he moved on.


We observed other wildlife on our initial visit, a few skinks rattled the patches of shredded palmetto debris. Song birds flitted from tree to tree. And we found a few signs of the nocturnal activities of small mammals such as opossums and raccoons in some small patches of wire grass. This triggered a discussion of the possibility of the reintroduction of the key species characteristic of Long Leaf Pine forests. We quickly eliminated this idea because all these species needed home ranges larger than the site.

We left the site that day with an intriguing question, why did the Long Leaf Pine’s growth appear to be arrested?

We needed more information. We decided to take soil samples. Maybe there was a difference in the soil that caused the arrested growth? We would core drill some of the pines to determine their age, too. Perhaps, some event occurred to stunt the Long Leaf trees. But why were the Slash Pines not affected?

catfaced-tree-on-siteWe found one cat faced tree on the site. John and Donna would investigate the local history and the history of timbering in the area to see if there might be some historic correlations that might be helpful to our investigation. Maybe a hurricane or killing fire (one that burns hot and long) somehow figured into the answer.

We also wanted to check out the area we were told was used to dump fill from dredging. Did it affect the pines down hillside?

Our Investigation

We did soil core drillings on the lower hillside, running transects east and west and north to south. We cataloged the elevation, latitude and longitude of each core sample. We drilled down until we hit water-saturated soil. We hit water-saturated soil at very shallow depths, coming very near the surface as we moved downhill. This surprised us because there are two drainage streams on both sides of the site well below our drill sites.  On the lower core drillings, we were hitting water and anaerobic decay at about three feet. This indicated the organic material was submerged for long periods. The depth of water-saturated soil remained constant along our east and west transects.soil-core-sample

Using a soil kit, we classified the types of soil from the color and size of the granules. We cross referenced the soils types with the most recent Franklin County Soil Survey (1994). We identified five soil types. None were suitable for building without modifications such as compaction. Most tended to flood easily.

We dyed the tree core samples to make counting the annual growth rings easier. The core drilling of several larger trees told us the trees were from 90 to 110 years old. Will Sheftall went beyond the call of duty and assisted us with the tree coring and hiked the top of the hill with us on a very hot and humid day. We were grateful for his cheerful input even though the going was tough.

We saw several Pond Pines near the top of the hillside, some in good health. The nearby snags, based on their size, were likely Pond Pines, too. These pines were along the edge of the fill area. The fill area was mostly grasses, woody plants and a few small hardwood trees.  We did not core drill the earth in the fill area. It had been core drilled by others and we did not have access to that information.

John found that Dr. Anderson’s 2009 plant inventory was cataloged into the Florida State University Herbarium website ( .  The Herbarium’s database preserves Dr. Anderson’s work.  However the data was not recorded in FSU Marine Lab database so John input all 123 species for quick and easy access in the lab. The plant inventory confirmed what we saw in our explorations. The plants were the type you would expect to see in flatwoods and pine scrub. It also included water loving plants, but it did not address the Pond Pines we saw.

 Our Conclusions

longleaf-pine-core-sampleThe Pond Pines, and the soil samples indicate the hillside contains and holds more water than the casual observer might expect. It is likely that in the past there was a “bowl” of freshwater on the hill top. This allowed Pond Pines to thrive around it because they like “wet feet”. It also made it an attractive place to place dredge fill. The placement of fill could have the effect of causing the bowl to overflow with any rain sending water downhill. Or the water flow could be the result of the cap trapping water. The cap would prevent surface evaporation and there is little vegetation to hold it on the surface. This allows more water to seep into the larger granular soil strata below. Even ephemeral ponds on the hill top might provide enough evaporation to be an effective mechanism to lower the water table on the hillside.

Our soil core samples did show a layer of large granular soil indicative of an ancient dune which could act as a lateral water pipeline across the hillside.  Our samples and the 1994 County Soil survey indicated soil types that are sandy, infertile and usually have a history of high water tables.

Whatever the structure or reason for the soil saturation, it is not healthy for the Long Leaf Pine.  These pines need water but are prefer much drier soil than the water loving Pond Pines or the water tolerant Slash Pines. It is the adaptation of the Slash Pine to tolerate as much as 90 days of “wet feet” annually. This is one of the reasons it is the most popular cultivated pine.

So, it may be that the Long Leaf Pines on the site are adapting to the wet soil by “topping out”. Their growth is limited by too much water content in the soil.

We knew that the Long Leaf needs both fire and an open canopy to germinate. The open canopy is needed because the Long Leaf has a “brush stage” that can last several years.  That had to be taken into account when aging the trees. So we added the appropriate years to the Long Leaf core samples to determine a tree’s age. When we compared the core samples from the Long Leaf Pines to the core samples from the Slash Pines, they confirmed what Donna had theorized early on, the Long Leaf Pines were older than the Slash Pines. The oldest Long Leaf was about 109 years old and the oldest Slash about 83 years old.

John took a look at cultural factors. He composed a timeline of activity from 1894 through 1966.  The cat faced tree on the site was evidence of turpentining activity. It set a cultural time backstop because it was not invented until 1902.

We surmised that the area was timbered after the turn of the century. This left an open canopy with time for the Long Leaf to germinate. Sometime after that, maybe in the 1930’s or later the Slash Pines germinated.  As these trees matured, they were used to harvest sap for turpentine. We found no evidence of timbering in the fill area. It was likely some type of forest wetland.

On the west side of Franklin County, the limestone base can be 400 feet deep. But it reaches to as little as 12 below the overburden, as it reaches the Ochlockonee Inlet. So, a spring close to the site cannot be ruled out as a contributor to the water table on the hillside. However, we found no evidence of one.

Another theory we kicked about is that the hurricane of 1900 toppled the Long Leaf on the hillside. We dismissed this idea because there was no evidence of snags (standing or on the ground)) except smaller ones on the west side of the hill.

Our findings are not conclusive and much more study would be needed to confirm with certainty the ecological and cultural history of this little hillside. One thing seems certain, at the moment, the hillside is a better environment for the Slash Pine than the Long Leaf Pine.

Based on what we found, what is the best use of this property? The soil types on the site are not suitable for building.  However, Florida State University Marine Laboratory plans to build a new facility just west of this hillside, where the soil is suitable. The future of the private land to the north and east are unknown. It is our opinion that this 70 or so acres can complement the FSU Marine Lab building program aesthetically and provide demonstration area for indigenous coastal species.

Many universities have developed such areas on or adjacent to their campuses. And this area has much going for it as an educational resource. Here are just a few ideas:

  • We found four transitional zones or edges which provide good habitant for different types of plant and animal species. These edges provide opportunities for wildlife viewing.
  • There are drainage creeks on both sides. A perfect home for freshwater species of plants and animals.
  • The drainages empty in to the Gulf which provides another unique transition area. Currently at least one alligator has found a home in this little coastal water shed.
  • The hillside can become a resource for the Panhandle and Gulf Coastal plains students and educators and be used for education and dissemination of information about restoring native habitant. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has developed a botanical garden in a natural habitat. ( similar to what could be developed on this site.
  • FSU could partner with St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to enhance the Monarch Recovery Program by using the coastal acreage located in the flyway of the Monarch migration.
  • It can be a place to preserve the reminders of the cultural and historic use of the site, such as the cat-faced tree we found for interpretive purposes.
  • Because it is located on the Marine Lab property it could also be used to present the history of the mullet seine yard history of the Wakulla and Franklin Counties.
  • It can be used to showcase the coastal transition areas from the harbor up the hillside.
  • Develop a trail system to provide access to the various habitants and future maintenance of the property.

After our study, John returned to Stamford to complete his doctoral studies. Donna has returned to her business endeavors and her dream of establishing an art gallery in Apalachicola. And me? Well, I am the lucky one. I continue my retirement. I spend my days chasing speckled trout and redfish on the turtle grass beds that surrounding the FSU Lab. And some mornings, as a sea breeze pushes my skiff across the Lab’s channel, I stare up at the little hillside, wondering what the future holds for it and the gator that calls the Lab’s harbor home.

Special thanks to all those students and faculty at the FSU Laboratory that made Donna, John and I feel at home when we visited, asked questions or needed to use the shop. We have attended special programs at the Lab and are happy to have such a great resource located in Franklin County.

Turtles and Scallopers: Do They Mix?


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Using the rangefinder to take vessel locations.

by Christian Gredzens (PhD Candidate/Research Assistant)

The Big Bend of Florida serves as important habitat for a wide variety of marine species, including three species of marine turtles: loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, and green turtles which are all listed under the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the coastal seagrass beds in the region act as important foraging and developmental habitat for these species of turtles. This area also supports major recreational opportunities such as the Florida bay scallop fishery which brings thousands of people out onto the water from Bay to Hernando county between late June and late September annually. Coincidentally, the primary scalloping grounds overlap with the seagrass beds turtles use. Unfortunately, the effects of increased human use on turtle foraging patterns is unknown and it is thought that high densities of people out on the water may displace turtles from their foraging grounds into less productive habitats.


Attaching a satellite transmitter to a small green turtle. Photo taken with all applicable state and federal permits in place.

Fieldwork began in May 2016 where I attached ten satellite transmitters to two species of turtles: Kemp’s and greens. The transmitters will allow me to figure out how turtles are moving in the environment and also help me determine if there was a change in movement after the scallop season opener in late June. Next, I began assessing human use of the area with countless hours spent on the water with my volunteers getting vessel locations using a handheld rangefinder. To date over 3,600 boat locations have been collected along 12 miles of coast with over 3,000 of them counted during the scallop season alone. At the same time I have been assessing the different habitats in the area to see if certain areas provide higher quality habitat. Finally, I have been opportunistically catching turtles from the side of the boat to get a better idea of the specifics for each turtle population in the area.


Capturing a male loggerhead in Crystal River. Photo taken with all applicable state and federal permits in place.

The next phase of the project is to create a habitat map to overlay with turtle sightings and tracking data which will tell me if there are specific habitat associations for each species. I will also look at if there are any effects from the scallop season on turtles by looking at movements before and during the scallop season and matching them with boat locations and high density scalloping areas. Hopefully this information can be used to inform and educate the public on marine turtles in areas where they recreate.

Reproduction and Movement Patterns of Sheepshead


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by austin heil, fsucml graduate student

Notice the teeth of this Sheepshead caught on artificial reef near Dog Island, Florida.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Sheepshead are famous (or infamous) for their human-like teeth. Their teeth produce a smile matched by no other fish species. Tourists and land-dwellers often marvel at the Sheepshead’s teeth when they first encounter them. Despite what their outward appearance may imply, Sheepshead are a tasty fish, frequently sought after by recreational fishers in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, Sheepshead are almost exclusively targeted during their spawning season. This could result in a potential problem. The fishing spawning populations has resulted in declines of other fisheries species. Although I must admit that Sheepshead teeth are quite a spectacle, I personally find their biology more fascinating and important.

Hundreds of Sheepshead caught during a fishing tournament hosted by Sanibel Island Fishing Club during March 2014.

Hundreds of Sheepshead caught during a fishing tournament hosted by Sanibel Island Fishing Club during March 2014.

The first part of my research examined the reproduction and movement patterns of Sheepshead in the NE Gulf of Mexico. The first step was to determine where Sheepshead were spawning. I used data collected from a previous study in our area, along with communication from the local fishing community, to choose my study sites. I ended up choosing three artificial reefs for my study near Dog Island, FL. I used a Go-Pro mounted drop camera system to monitor monthly Sheepshead abundance on these reefs from August 2015 to August 2016. I found Sheepshead were basically absent from these reefs during summer and fall. However, in January, hundreds of Sheepshead showed up on these artificial reefs. This was exciting! A healthy population of Sheepshead remained on these reefs until April, after which they completely disappeared.

Sheepshead aggregation on artificial reef. Over 100 Sheepshead were observed on each 20 second rotation.

Sheepshead aggregation on artificial reef. Over 100 Sheepshead were observed on each 20 second rotation.

Now, I needed to determine if Sheepshead were indeed spawning on my study sites. To do this, I sampled from each reef population from January-April. Using histology, a nifty technique that allows you to observe tissue in detail, I found presence of hydrated eggs and post-ovulatory follicles. These indicated a presence of actively spawning individuals on all three reefs. I found evidence of Sheepshead spawning aggregations!

In the past couple of months, I have been presented with an exciting opportunity to further investigate the movement patterns of Sheepshead. Dr. Chip Cotton of the FSUCML received a grant to deploy a number of acoustic receivers array in Apalachicola Bay. The receivers will be strategically deployed to block off any exit from the Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. This allows you to capture movement offshore. Luckily for me, Sheepshead spend the majority of their life cycle in estuaries (like Apalachicola Bay).

Austin Heil holding up a Sheepshead caught during Saturday at the Sea summer camp, hosted by the FSUCML.

Austin Heil holding up a Sheepshead caught during Saturday at the Sea summer camp, hosted by the FSUCML.

Starting in late November 2016, I will be tagging 15 Sheepshead with an acoustic tag in Apalachicola Bay. These acoustic tags will transmit to the receivers and track the movement of each fish inside the Bay. Ultimately, I want to capture when Sheepshead start their migration out of the estuary to offshore habitats. By tracking their movement, I will be able to determine the triggers (e.g. tides, water temperature, etc.) that initiate their migration offshore.

You can help fund Austin’s Sheepshead research, by donating here!

North by Northwest: Collaborative Research at Glasgow University

by Dr. Sophie McCoy, FSU Dept. of Bio Sci and FSUCML
Mussel bed from Tatoosh Island

Mussel bed from Tatoosh Island

I started my PhD thinking I would reconstruct local environmental history from an organism’s perspective. Has the seawater environment recently changed in a way that has been felt by an organism where it actually lives? The California mussel showed good potential to answer this question. As a common species found on West Coast shores and an ecologically important part of rocky shore ecosystems due to its many food web links and its deep and expansive mussel beds that act as habitat for other organisms, the California mussel was important enough to care about. Mussels also grow their shells by forming distinct growth bands each year, like other bivalves. This was a good start.

In that summer of 2009, I first visited Tatoosh Island. Tatoosh, the north-westernmost point of the contiguous United States, would become my field site and quasi summer home for the next 5 years. That year, my eyes were opened to rocky shore ecology in real life. I couldn’t believe how many mussels there were, nor how big they got.

A look at the inside of a mussel shell. The colors show the crystal orientation of that piece of calcium carbonate

A look at the inside of a mussel shell. The colors show the crystal orientation of that piece of calcium carbonate

The mussel project did not end up as the focus of my doctoral work, but has remained an active interest and side project ever since, involving Cathy Pfister and Tim Wootton from the University of Chicago. Most recently, I went to visit the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences at Glasgow University on a Post-doctoral and Early Career Researcher Exchange from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology, Scotland. Of course, I had my mussels in tow.

In my two month visit to Glasgow, I spent nearly every day in the Imaging Spectroscopy and Analysis Centre. By far my favorite technique learned and used while I was there was Electron Back Scatter Diffraction (EBSD), which maps and images crystallographic orientation. I now have images of modern day mussels collected in 2009 and 2015, archival samples from the 1960s-1970s, and mussels collected in archaeological middens from 1,000-2,000 years before present, donated by the Makah Tribe and Olympic National Park. This time series of field samples provides insight to mussel shell growth as ocean acidification has intensified in the Pacific Northwest, allowing us to match previous climate reconstructions made using these same shells to response of the California mussel in this population.

Learn more about other hardbottom reef habitats in the FSUCML Virtual Classroom.

Goliath Grouper in nearshore mangrove estuaries: researching effects and patterns of mercury toxicity


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by Chris Malinowski, FSUCML graduate student

I just returned, along with a team of scientists and volunteers, from a successful research trip (May 15-23) to the Ten Thousand Islands (TTI), southwest Florida, where we were conducting research on juvenile Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara)—the largest grouper species in the western North Atlantic (adults can exceed 3m in length and 400 kg in weight).

Juvenile Goliath Grouper in a holding chamber, with water being pumped over its gills.

Juvenile Goliath Grouper in a holding chamber, with water being pumped over its gills.

Joining me on this expedition were: Dr. Robert Ellis, a recent graduate from the Coleman/Koenig reef fish ecology lab and current employee at FWC-Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI); Dr. Philip Stevens, research scientist at FWC-FWRI and catfish angler extraordinaire; Dr. Mauricio Hostim, visiting scientist from Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Brazil; and Robert Malinowski, fishing enthusiast and volunteer researcher from Wisconsin [who coincidentally happens to be my father].

Life History and research objectives:

Goliath Grouper are long-lived (surviving 37+ yrs) and tend to remain primarily in nearshore mangrove habitats as juveniles— until they mature and move offshore to join adults on reefs around ages 5-7, or around one meter in length. This predictable habitat shift from juvenile to adult life stages allows us to target adults and juveniles separately.

Chris Malinowski putting blood into an anticoagulant vial, after drawing blood from a juvenile Goliath Grouper.

Chris Malinowski putting blood into an anticoagulant vial, after drawing blood from a juvenile Goliath Grouper.

The main objectives of this trip were to catch larger juveniles (~400 to 1000 cm total length), using a setline technique with a baited 14-0 circle hook, and to obtain various tissue samples (blood, muscle, liver) to be measured for heavy metal contamination (e.g., mercury) and health impacts. Goliath Grouper have some of the highest measured mercury levels of any grouper species in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, so we are trying to understand patterns of accumulation, including where they are getting it from and how they are impacted. Comparing results of juvenile heavy metal levels and resultant health effects with that of adults will give us a good idea of how size, age, and habitat differences factor into heavy metal accumulation patterns.

Details of the research trip:

The Ten Thousand Islands is a beautiful region of Florida, containing shorelines with relatively expansive and healthy mangroves, which provide essential nursery habitat for juvenile Goliath Grouper and many other fish species.

Dr. Phillip Stevens releasing a Goliath Grouper after sampling, measuring, and tagging was completed.

Dr. Phillip Stevens releasing a Goliath Grouper after sampling, measuring, and tagging was completed.

Throughout our seven days of sampling, we visited various sites throughout TTI that we knew from previous studies, and last year’s sampling, to have the highest local abundances of juvenile Goliath Grouper. Overall, we caught and sampled a total of 9 fish. Last year we sampled 16 fish from these sites, so this was a bit lower than we had hoped. Nevertheless, a very successful trip!

Our sampling methods are non-lethal, which is critical for research on a protected species of conservation concern, and because we are able to obtain important mark-recapture data. Such data provides us with details of how far the fish has moved since it was last caught, how much it has grown, and allows for mortality estimates. On this trip, four of our nine fish were recaptures from previous years of sampling. More importantly for the objectives of this heavy metal study was that two of these fish were individuals I had sampled last year for mercury toxicity. This is really exciting because I will be able to measure and compare mercury contamination in these individuals from one year to the next. Overall, between adults and juveniles, I now have about 15 individual fish that I have recaptured and sampled for mercury toxicity multiple times from one year to the next.

Other species we encountered:

Our fishing technique of using large hooks and bait (catfish or other live bait) can often attract other large predators, other than Goliath Grouper. We caught two bull sharks on our lines, measuring about 6 feet in length. The first one we caught really got our hearts pounding because we could see the mangrove limb, that the setline was attached to, from hundreds of feet away violently bouncing up and down. You never know what will be on the other end of the line, so it was exciting to see the action from so far away. Once we motored up to the line and realized it was a bull shark, we quickly cut the hook out of its mouth to set it free.

From top to bottom: Dr. Mauricio Hostim, Chris Malinowski, Robert Malinowski. Releasing a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) after it was caught on one of our setlines.

From top to bottom: Dr. Mauricio Hostim, Chris Malinowski, Robert Malinowski. Releasing a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) after it was caught on one of our setlines.

We also had bottlenose dolphins and multiple species of turtle (terrapin, loggerhead), and various bird species, from herons to spoonbills, visit us each day. We had one very large and curious loggerhead sea turtle following us around and coming right up to the boat to check us out for an entire day of fishing. It is a beautiful thing to be surrounded by mangroves and to see so much life around you. Visiting this place reminds me of how important it is that we maintain what is left of our mangroves, particularly because they are so critical to the health of this ecosystem—including the critical habitat they provide for the survival of so many species.

Partnership with Rookery Bay NERR:

We were fortunate to pair with Kevin Cunniff and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) for this trip. Our research crew was provided accommodations at the Shell Island Road (SIR) field station and we were able to keep our boat docked at the Goodland field station, which enabled easy access to our sampling sites each morning. The SIR field station was a great place to stay because we had a full kitchen, living area, and a full lab where samples could be processed each evening when we returned from the field.

To learn more about Goliath Grouper research in the Coleman-Koenig research lab at the FSUCML, click here.

Update # 2: Pulley Ridge and Tortugas research cruise May, 2016

by Dr. Sandra Brooke, FSUCML faculty
The ROV operations center with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry on the left, Lew Lamar (Camera Technician) and Steve Firman (ROV pilot)

The ROV operations center with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry on the left, Lew Lamar (Camera Technician) and Steve Firman (ROV pilot)

Monday was another day of strong currents and high winds at Pulley Ridge so we decided to try our luck over at the Tortugas Ecological Reserve (TER). We focused on the western wall of the TER in an area that is outside of the current protected area, but has been proposed to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) as a potential Habitat Area of Particular Concern. The ROV struggled with strong currents, but we managed to complete a dive along the reef and saw some large boulder corals, gorgonians and sponges, typical of the Tortugas reefs as well as lots of fishes including large grouper. After completing our dive at this site, we moved to another location along the wall and saw a similar reef community. Towards the end of the dive we were joined by a pod of spotted dolphins that swam around the ROV for several minutes then followed us to the surface where they played around the bow. Tomorrow we will try a different part of the Tortugas a little further south, if the weather holds…

Atlantic spotted dolphins swam by the ROV and the ship outside the Tortugas Ecological

Atlantic spotted dolphins swam by the ROV and the ship outside the Tortugas Ecological

Pulley Ridge and Tortugas research cruise May, 2016

by Dr. Sandra Brooke, FSUCML faculty

On Wednesday 4th May, I drove across Florida to West Palm Beach to meet the Waitt Foundation vessel, the M/V Plan B. It started out as a lovely sunny day but quickly deteriorated into a torrential downpour that lasted the rest of the trip. I arrived in West Palm, just in time to load my gear and hop on the boat before it left for Pulley Ridge, a unique mesophotic coral reef in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Mesophotic or ‘twilight zone’ reefs are on the edge of the depth limits for reef-building corals that need sunlight to support their symbiotic algae. Their depth and distance from shore lends them some protection from high temperatures and human impacts, so they may represent refuges for corals and other reef species that can no longer survive in the degraded shallow areas.

Deploying the Falcon ROV at Pulley Ridge mesophotic reef

Deploying the Falcon ROV at Pulley Ridge mesophotic reef

This cruise is part of a larger project that is supported by the Waitt Foundation in collaboration with National Geographic and the Marine Conservation Institute. Brian Skerry, a National Geographic photographer, is aboard to collect images that highlight special marine ecosystems. My colleague John Reed (Harbor Branch Oceanographic Inst/FAU) and I are collecting benthic habitat and community data on the Pulley Ridge reefs. It was a rough trip down with strong winds and high seas, but we arrived at Pulley Ridge late Thursday night ready to start work.

We finally caught a break in the weather and deployed the Falcon ROV (See image above) on the main ridge inside the Pulley Ridge Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC). Conditions were not ideal; we were being pushed around by the current and wind, but we saw some large red grouper excavations, each with attendant lionfish (unfortunately), fan-shaped green algae that only grows on Pulley Ridge, and large flat plates of coral that are characteristic of these mesophotic reefs. Growing as a plate instead of a boulder allows the corals to take advantage of the limited light (See image below). Towards the end of the dive we were venturing into territory that had not been explored before, and found a massive basin (probably a red grouper excavation) with hundreds of tiny fishes as well as large red grouper, scamp and black grouper. At this point the current pulled us off the reef and signaled the end of the dive.

Large flat plates of Agaricia coral at Pulley Ridge. Image courtesy NOAA-OER

Large flat plates of Agaricia coral at Pulley Ridge. Image courtesy NOAA-OER

Saturday and Sunday were again battles with nature with high seas and strong currents, but we managed two ROV dives on the western ridge before having to give up for the day. This part of Pulley Ridge is inside the HAPC but is outside of the small part of the total area that has any protection. This area is deeper than the main ridge and has a dense covering of gorgonians, sponges and many other invertebrates and fishes. An expansion of protection for Pulley Ridge has been proposed to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council as part of a larger effort to protect deep sea corals (those > 50 m depth) in the Gulf of Mexico. Any additional data we can collect on the proposed protected areas may help move them forward.