Update #2: Deep-sea Research Cruise

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by Johanna Imhoff, FSUCML graduate student

Leg 1 Summary Photos
Leg one of the 2016 Florida Restore Act Center for Excellence Program (FLRACEP) cruise threw many challenges our way, including rough seas and heavy currents. Our first fish of the year was a yellowedge grouper (Epinephelus flavolimbatus, top left). This is one of the species that we have caught repeatedly over the five years of our survey, as well as hakes (top right), gulper sharks (Centrophorus granulosus, middle right) and shortspine spurdog (Squalus cf. mitsukurii, bottom). Repeatedly sampling these species over the years and in several different regions (i.e. West Florida Slope, east and west sides of DeSoto Canyon) provides valuable toxicology samples so that Dr. Jim Gelsleichter and his students at the University of North Florida can continue to evaluate the presence of persistent contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

The hake pictured in the top right is actually a new species for our survey (Carolina hake, Urophycis earlyi) and it will be preserved in the FSUCML Ichthyological Collection. Typically, we catch Gulf hake (U. cirrata) and Southern hake (U. floridanus), and rarely, Spotted hake (U. regia).

Just in case you were wondering about the strange letters in the middle of the shortspine spurdog’s scientific name (cf.), this stands for “conferred as.” This species is part of a circumglobal species complex that is currently undergoing re-description. In other words, there are several species around the world that look like this one and have all been called by the same name. However, they are actually different species. This one in particular is being re-described by Mariah Pfleger, a recent master’s student in Dr. Toby Daly-Engel’s lab at University of West Florida. She found that this species in the Gulf of Mexico is in fact distinct from the others around the world. It will have a new name in the next year or so.

We find some amazing invertebrates in the deep sea. This beautiful urchin and basket star (middle left) came up from the bottom tangled with each other and around our longline. We don’t know what species they are, but perhaps FSUCML faculty Dr. Sandra Brooke will be able to tell us! NOTE: We asked Dr. Sandra Brooke, and here’s what she had to tell us – the right hand side of the picture is a basket star, member of the family Gorgonocephalidae, and the left hand side of the picture is a pencil urchin, member of the family Cidaridae.

Clark Morgan was lucky enough to see his first bluntnose sixgill shark on leg one before he had to head back to school. Unfortunately, she broke the barb on the hook and swam away before we were able to get good photographs or tag her.

Another UNF master’s student, John Whalen, took Clark’s place and FSU research technician Bryan Keller joined the team for leg two. We are headed out to our first set of stations in the northern Gulf. We’ve rigged some new weights for the longlines, added two more hanks of line to our spool, and we’re being treated to calm seas. Everyone is ready to start fishing again. Wish us luck!

Venturing to the West Florida Slope: Deep-sea Research Cruise

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by Johanna Imhoff, FSUCML graduate student

Day 1 Calm Sunset

We are having beautiful weather as we steam toward our first set of stations on the West Florida Slope. After we had stowed most of our gear securely, fellow FSUCML grad students, Bianca and Brian; UNF grad student Clark; and I sat at the galley table and prepared flagging tape with individual numbers to tag each fish when it comes on board, and vials with the same numbers for storing fin clips and muscle biopsy samples for genetics and stable isotopes research. When we start fishing, our first fish will be RA-16-001 (that stands for Restore Act, as in FL Restore Act Center for Excellence Program, 2016, and the first fish). Bianca also prepared syringes for collecting blood sample for her reproductive and stress physiology research. With the team working together, we got this done pretty quickly and we’ve had time to read, nap, work and acquire our sea legs.

Stay tuned for more information about our research cruise.

Turkey Wing Clams, epibionts, and flatworms. Oh my!

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By Melissa Olguin, FSU undergraduate

An Arca zebra shell with many different types of organisms attached. The peach colored flatworm is probably in the family Stylochidae, which is common in shallow areas of the Gulf of Mexico, usually near oyster reefs.

An Arca zebra shell with many different types of organisms attached. The peach colored flatworm is probably in the family Stylochidae, which is common in shallow areas of the Gulf of Mexico, usually near oyster reefs.

If you have a thing for invertebrates, then this project will give you a shell of a good time. I’m Melissa, a fourth year undergrad working in Dr. Brooke’s lab. I’m looking at the epibiont communities forming on a local bivalve, the Arca zebra, commonly called the Turkey Wing Clam. In the field these shells often look like little more than small clumps of sediment. But upon closer inspection one can find a slew of colorful motile and sessile organisms calling these shells home. Each shell appears to have its own community of encrusting, branching, and crawling organisms. Currently I’m recording and identifying the organisms growing and living on each shell.
Two large Arca zebra covered in epibionts, including algae, coralline algae, tunicates and several cup corals called Phyllangia americana. We don’t know how long these bivalves live, but they must be quite old as these corals grow slowly.

Two large Arca zebra covered in epibionts, including algae, coralline algae, tunicates and several cup corals called Phyllangia americana. We don’t know how long these bivalves live, but they must be quite old as these corals grow slowly.

This process has exposed me to a lot of taxonomical work and even revealed to me the amount of work still needed for the Gulf of Mexico. One such example is demonstrated in the photo showing a peach colored flatworm. Much of the literature on Atlantic flatworms is old, and my main resource on the Gulf of Mexico for flatworms only has depth records of only 4 m for most species. That puts my flatworm (collected at 12m) beyond its recorded depth. This finding shows that in understudied habitats like the Apalachee Bay nearshore reefs, a little exploration can produce valuable new information, such as depth extensions in the case of my flatworm.

Besides looking at what is living on these shells, I am interested in seeing the interactions going on between the epibionts and the Arca zebra. Epibionts have been found to deter predation on bivalves (Vance 1978) while the Arca zebra shells can provide the substrate necessary for many organisms to settle on (Scandland 1979, Avila et al 2013). I would love to explore this more and I’m looking forward to discovering more about these fascinating communities.

References:

Hernández-Ávila, I., Tagliafico, A., & Rago, N. (2013). Composition and structure of the macrofauna associated with beds of two bivalve species in Cubagua Island, Venezuela. Revista de Biología Tropical, 61, 669-682.

Scanland, T. B. (1979). Epibiota of Arca zebra and Arca imbricata– Community Analysis. Veliger, 21, 475-485.

Vance, R. R. (1978). A mutualistic interaction between a sessile marine clam and its epibionts. Ecology, 679-685.

To Mate or Not to Mate: Timing of Black Sea Bass Reproduction

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By Ryan Mckenzie, FSUCML Graduate Student
Recently captured fertilized egg of Black Sea Bass (Centropristis striata) under a microscope

Recently captured fertilized egg of Black Sea Bass (Centropristis striata) under a microscope

Holy Mackerel! Well, I guess Black Sea Bass (Centropristis striata) in this case. In the late afternoon hours on Tuesday, I observed some fishy behavior occurring in my Black Sea Bass observation tanks at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory. This morning while checking my tanks, I discovered fertilized eggs floating on the surface of the water. This is great news for my current research into the reproductive ecology of the Black Sea Bass in the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico. For my research, I am looking into many aspects of reproductive ecology of the Black Sea Bass including the seasonal dynamics of reef populations and individual reproductive behavior. Now with some more luck, I will be able to directly observe and describe their spawning behavior at the FSUCML. Along with other data collected from field surveys, I will use these observations to determine when spawning occurs and if it is related to environmental factors correlated to spawning activity in other reef fishes such as moon cycle, time of day, and water temperature. Was this spawning event related to the recent full moon? Does spawning always happen in the afternoon? These are some of the questions I hope to answer during these behavioral trials in the next few months here at the FSUCML.

Burning our way to a healthy forest

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By Chris Matechik, FSUCML Marine Research Technician
An aerial view of the FSU N70 tract. The redish-brown areas have been hand cleared.

An aerial view of the FSU N70 tract. The redish-brown areas have been hand cleared.

A sapling stage longleaf pine.

A sapling stage longleaf pine.

Rays of sun filtered down through outstretched branches above my head as I looked up into the canopy of very old longleaf pines. Somewhere in the thick shrubs around me I could hear a brave soul fighting his or her way through the overgrown shrubs trying to free a longleaf pine from the smothering grip of shrubs that had forgotten their place in the fire suppressed landscape. Though he or she was just a few feet away I wasn’t quite sure who it was because a wall of vegetation 10 feet high and probably just as thick separated us. In the distance I could hear the sounds of machinery meeting the shrubs and violently throwing small trimmings, leaves and sticks around. The machines stopped and everything was silent, though just for a moment. From my perspective looking straight up from the little clearing surrounding me the overgrown shrubs were out of view. Without the sound of machinery and bushwhacking reminding me that I was in an overgrown pine forest I was able to imagine that I was actually looking up into the canopy of a well maintained, park-like longleaf pine forest. The machinery started again, the rare moment of silence ceased, and I was violently thrown from my daydream into reality. I was in an overgrown pine forest and it would take a lot of hard work and a few years before the forest of my dreams was a reality. Fortunately, those behind the seemingly impenetrable wall of vegetation also shared my vision of a healthy forest.

We were all part of a group that was hand thinning vegetation around long leaf pine trees in preparation for the return of fire to the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory’s (FSUCML) N70 tract. Soon fire will sweep across the property consuming brush, shrubs, downed limbs, and years of accumulated pine straw; opening up space for fire dependent plants such as wiregrass and long leaf pines. However, in fire suppressed forests fire is a tool that must be used carefully. Excess fuel can cause the burn to become too intense and harm trees or start a destructive wildfire.

In a healthy longleaf pine forest the groundcover should be grasses and some other plants that are about knee-high. As you can see from the growth around me (I am 6'2"), this vegetation is clearly overgrown. Woody shrubs have displaces other plants.

In a healthy longleaf pine forest the groundcover should be grasses and some other plants that are about knee-high. As you can see from the growth around me (I am 6’2″), this vegetation is clearly overgrown. Woody shrubs have displaced other plants.

Fires occur frequently in healthy, natural long leaf pine forests. Perhaps John McGuire of the longleaf alliance described it most appropriately, especially for a marine biologist like me, when he wrote, “In the unbroken, primal landscape… fires once frequently moved through these longleaf pine woods like a gentle swell on the ocean’s surface.” Alabama’s TREASURED Forests, Spring 2007, pp. 16-21. Imagine a time before large forests were fragmented by roads, pole lines, agricultural land, developments and other anthropogenic disturbances. One lightning strike could start a fire that burned unhindered for miles until it reached a river or stream. Larger fires meant fewer ignitions were required to burn entire forests. To survive in these conditions longleaf pines and other native plants in the ecosystem developed adaptations that made them resistant to fire. Longleaf pines have fire resistant bark that flakes off the trunk as it burns and they drop their lower limbs to prevent fire from working its way into the canopy. Even young longleaf pines have some resistance to fire. They form little tufts of needles surrounding new growth that so closely resemble clumps of grass that they are called “grass stage” pines. The cluster of needles shelters the growing portion of the tree from fire. The pines can remain in the grass stage for years until canopy space opens above them at which time they bolt up to more than three feet tall in one growing season. This stage, called the sapling stage, is a vulnerable time in a longleaf pine’s life but if they grow fast enough they can reach a height at which flames cannot reach their growing buds. In fire prone systems these adaptations give longleaf pines an advantage over less fire tolerant species. In fact longleaf pines and wiregrass actually promote fire, which helps them maintain their dominant status in the ecosystem. Adult longleaf pines drop flammable needles on top of flammable wiregrass. Both burn easily but not too hot. Together, these flash fuels help promote frequent, low-intensity fires that move through the landscape quickly and cause little harm to the long leaf pine trees.

A volunteer clears vegetation from around the base of a longleaf pine

A volunteer clears vegetation from around the base of a longleaf pine

Unfortunately, the whole system is hijacked when fire is suppressed. In just a few years, shrubs that would normally be limited to about knee high height by fires grow taller until they start approaching the lower limbs of pine trees. Additionally, without fire to kill some seedlings, the abundance of shrubs increases. They shade out young pines and herbaceous plants that would normally thrive in the understory. Organic matter such as leaves, branches, and bark accumulates on the forest floor creating a thick layer called duff that smothers seeds of fire adapted species. Ironically, for a longleaf forest in this condition the fire that would normally maintain it can actually destroy it. Flames can climb up shrubs and reach the canopies of pine trees, which can be lethal. Overgrown shrubs and accumulated organic matter burn hotter than the flash fuels of a healthy forest. The higher flames can devour grass stage and sapling pines and can even harm adult trees. To prevent this, the fuels need to be thinned or removed prior to burning. A contractor has been hired to use a machine called a Gyro-Trac to grind up many of the shrubs. The Gyro-Trac makes quick work of stands of shrubs and small hardwood trees but maneuvering the equipment close enough to longleaf pines to remove the shrubs around the trunks is risky business. If the machine goes just a little too far the grinder on the front of the Gyro-Trac could damage the pine trees. To avoid this damage the Gyro-Trac will only clear within a few feet of the trunk. This is where the volunteers come in. Although they can’t cut as fast as a Gyro-Trac they offer a delicate touch and a watchful eye that the vulnerable longleaf pines need, and that no machine can match. The FSUCML has been fortunate enough to have volunteers from the Sarracenia Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, the Florida Forest Service, the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, Native Nurseries, and the local community help with thinning. It is a daunting task and we might not get to every tree but each tree we have cleared has a greater chance of surviving the fire. For now, we will keep working with the distant, but not unattainable, dream of a healthy longleaf pine forest inspiring us.

Learn more about this restoration project and Longleaf pine habitats here.

My summer internship at FSUCML: researching large fish from coast to coast

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By Melissa Hruby, FSUCML Intern

My name is Melissa Hruby and I am currently a sophomore majoring in animal science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This week concludes a four-week internship at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory (FSUCML). I was drawn to FSUCML by the interesting research being conducted on coastal fishes including reef fish and sharks. I am still at the beginning stages of deciding on which science career path to take and thought this internship would be an excellent opportunity to gain hands-on experience in marine research. Indeed, this internship has exceeded my expectations and has exposed me to a field of research I never before knew existed.

Goliath Grouper research

The main focus of my internship was to work with Chris Malinowski on his Goliath Grouper dissertation research. Throughout the duration of my visit, I was able to partake in two sampling trips—each in a different region of Florida. The first was a one-day trip off of the lab in the Gulf of Mexico, and the second a six day trip out of Jupiter, FL in the Atlantic Ocean. Working with Chris through the process of trip planning melissa-goliathand preparation, the actual fieldwork, and post-trip sample processing and analyses, gave me a glimpse of many aspects comprising Chris’s research.

These trips were both instructive and personally rewarding. I learned a lot about the biology of this native species, which was once almost fished to extinction, and of the techniques and mechanics involved in collecting data. Above all else, I got to experience the thrill of pulling in one of the largest bony fish in the world. Although we caught many Goliath Grouper over the course of these trips, I managed to pull in the largest one, which measured 216 cm in length (estimated > 500lbs)! This was by far my favorite part, and is something I will never forget.

Coastal shark survey

melissa-sharkI was also fortunate enough to tag along on a shark survey excursion near the end of my internship. I assisted Cheston Peterson and a few others in a coastal shark survey. I quickly learned how much work it takes to sample a single shark, and developed an admiration for Cheston’s persistence and passion for these creatures. From just one day in the field with Cheston, we sampled over 80 sharks from five different species. My favorite part of this trip was hauling the large sharks (> 7 ft) on deck. This gave me a chance to work with these beautiful and admirable animals up close and to view them in a light that many people don’t get the chance to.

 

Final thoughts on my internship

Participating in this internship has been especially beneficial to me in my search for a career path and as I explore life interests. There are scarce opportunities, if any, involving this type of research in Wisconsin, so I was extremely fortunate in getting the chance to help Chris and other students from FSUCML with their research projects. Although I may not make a career of catching 500lb Goliath Grouper or seven-foot sharks, I will definitely put my newly acquired knowledge and skills to use in the future. After working in the field, I have learned how important effective teamwork is for the success of large collaborative research projects. Getting vital and timely data from each and every fish would be nearly impossible without cooperative efforts form everyone aboard the boat. From the organizational complexity of the project to the art of catching these giant fish, the entire process is far from easy and the teamwork behind it is what makes it successful. I plan on using the knowledge and insights I’ve gained through this internship to further advance my learning and to educate others whenever I can.