Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cold tolerance, Wilderness, Thanksgiving and No Food For Thought

Ahhhh, there's nothing like chillin' in the subtropical climate of South Florida (just south of Miami). No, I didn't tranfer to a fishing boat in Alaska. I'm still working on coral reef fish surveys in Florida. Here we are (Max, Shelby and Vanessa from left to right) trying to stay warm BEFORE getting in the 68 degree water for our dive. Indeed, the weather is warmer than I've ever experienced around Thanksgiving time, but I don't know that I feel that warm. My loss of cold tolerance seems to be compensating for relatively warm climate. I think that I did too much sweating in Bonaire.
Things are going to be quiet at Biscayne National Park, so I'm going to slip into the backcountry wilderness of the Everglades for Thanksgiving. With 1,296,500 acres, the Everglades has the the largest wilderness area east of Mississippi to explore.

I won't get the chance to get mauled by giant, overly playful dogs while having Thanksgiving with my sister in Washington this year, but I hope that you have a Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy your time with family and friends.
Although there is no shortage of reasons or stories to remind you to be thankful, I heard an especially powerful story on NPR this morning that I think you should listen to. This audio slideshow regarding the food crisis in Zimbabwe is an excellent reminder of how lucky you are and how far we have to go to care for the less fortunate.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Entering the Prickly Zone Part 2

A recently published internet video exposed a team of biologists passing through a mangrove to gain access to a thin band of shore lovingly called the prickly zone. This zone is not easy to get to and, as you may expect, it's not a pleasant stay. It's full of, well, pokey things --pokey cacti, thorny plants, and even sharp coral rock. The crack team infiltrated the prickly zone to monitor a population of critically endangered, but not yet listed, species. I can't tell you the island because it's better if you don't know, but the species is Opuntia corallicola. I find enjoyment in that genus name, Opuntia because it really is pointed. It's the semaphore pricklypear cactus, not to be confused with the other major cactus found in the prickly zone, the dildo cactus (Cephalocereus millspaughii). Yes, that is what it is called (Go ahead. Google it. Just don't blame me for what you find.), but some people call it pipe organ cactus (pictured to the left). Wild populations of Florida Semaphore Cactus occur on only a couple of islands in the world (Keys of Florida) and there aren't many semaphore cacti left on these islands. In fact, the status of this little cactus is depressing; the genetic diversity in the populations is tiny and there are only a handful of adult individuals left. What's worse yet is that this cactus seems to have a hard time reproducing sexually, perhaps due to meiotic problems associated with polyploidy (i.e., it has a lot of copies of chromosomes and it isn't very successful at going through meiosis to producing gametes). Thus, it reproduces asexually by dropping pads. Some individuals do end up budding despite this. Historically, the cactus was much more widespread on the Florida Keys, but development and poaching extirpated the cactus from most of its range. Despite being incredibly endangered it is not yet Federally recognized as endangered. Being pokey instead of fuzzy probably makes it harder to get much attention, except when you're trying to wrap a tag around one of the endangered pokey plants, as Max Tritt is attempting here. Opuntia has a knack for getting your attention when working with it closely. When in the prickly zone, you don't want to sit, kneel, stand too tall, or touch anything without looking carefully at it. If you get careless, you'll probably have a dildo cactus poking you in the back and pieces of Opuntia stuck in your knees. I reached to the back of my head at one point and found a cactus pad embedded in my scalp. Let me tell you finding out that it was there didn't help because all I realized in that discovery was that it was now firmly embedded in my hand.

This sabbatical has been full of different experiences (we were trying to catch a dove today -- brings back memories-- and we caught an invasive green iguana yesterday---recipe coming soon).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Donating Blood Part 2: My Turn -- Entering the Prickly Zone

One of my first blog posts was about a group of poor PSU students donating blood. This time it was my turn. A crack team was assembled. Our mission: approach a top-secret key (I called them cayes when in Belize --they're pronounced Key and it's just an island, OK?), penetrate the fringing mangroves, and infiltrate the prickly zone. Why? Good question. What's a prickly zone? Also a good question. You'll have to wait for the answers. However, I was able to smuggle out some footage of our team entering the site. This is exclusive footage. You cannot find it anywhere else. (note: I had to record a guitar track for the clip to cover any classified communication in the stream.)

This post will self-destruct in.........

Monday, November 17, 2008

Coral Popsicles and Green Epoxy

"Don't Touch the Coral!" Touching it can kill it. Coral looks hard, but are extremely delicate. On my first day at Biscayne NP, I touched a lot of coral. I was handling it like crazy. I was playing with coral Popsicles. So what's up with these coral Popsicles? They represent a long-term (your-lifetime-plus-100-years long-term) project run by Richard Curry (picture to come soon) here at Biscayne aimed at saving some of the coral reefs of Florida. Here's the deal. Boats run aground in this park all of the time. They crash on the reef (there are wrecks everywhere around here --- there's even a section of this national park that is basically controlled by England because it has a wreck here.). When they crash, they destroy coral. So what can be done to help save the reef? Well, some folks go out and try to reset fallen coral and secure them so that they'll stay and then the little fragments go into making coral Popsicles. Coral pieces are collected and sawed down into little chips. Those coral chips are places on green epoxy attached to a rod that has a bar code on it. Voila. Coral Popsicle. Boards with holes are then placed in protected areas in the bay and the little Popsicles are set into the boards and the coral is left to grow. This project is a serious test of patience. It may take about 10 years for the little chip to grow into a little ball that can be sawed off and placed back onto the reef (all of the scraps can be recycled to make new Popsicles). It may take much, much longer.

On my first day at Biscayne, I went out with a group of students from the University of Miami and we tended to the Popsicles. Very few people in the world get to handle coral in this way (other than people that really don't know what they're doing and they're killing the coral by touching it and other people that are collecting coral -- probably illegally-- to sell it). It appears to be the only experiment of its kind. There are labs that grow coral, but this is out in the wild.
Having the coral in the wild does create some problems. All kinds of things grow on the Popsicles and can overgrow the coral. Algae and firecorals grow on the epoxy and Popsiclesticks and must be removed occassionally. That's where student and volunteer aid (e.g., me) comes in. What are these students doing in this picture? Scraping firecoral (yeah, that's what that burning sensation was) and algae off of the Popsicles so that the coral can be weighed and have a mug-shot taken. First we had to dive down and collect the corals. Covered in overgrowth, knives were drawn and Popsicles were scraped unitl the green could be seen (like the Popsicles in the first picture). Doing this helps determine the growth rates of the corals itself (to determine how many lifetimes it will take to restore a piece of reef destroyed by a careless boater, for example). Once scraped a crack-team of coral weighers would scan the bar codes, weight the Coralsicles, and take a picture of the growth (to determine area). (How come I seem to get my foot in so many pictures?)
This project amazes me. In academia, it would be difficult or impossible to obtain funding for a project that takes 10 years to get results. What kind of person would consider starting a project that will take a lifetime to complete? To many it may seem futile or misguided. To me it's stunningly ambitious.

Rough Seas, Pokey Things, Slow Moving Torpedos, Elusive Iguanas and NASCAR

Seas have been rough. And it feels really cold in Florida. What's up with that? I appear to have become what some people down here call an SFP (South Florida Pansy). It's been really cold. I even had to get a winter hat! Conditions have left me a bit trapped. This past weekend a massive NASCAR race created traffic that prevented easy access to and from the park (the NASCAR track is another site to be had -- just like Mt. Trashmore and Turkey Point Nuclear Plant-- near here). Plus, the weather has been ruining good fish census days. We attempted a dive last week. It lasted about 2 minutes at about 4 feet. Our boats was taking on water and we were getting tossed about. We got in anyway and found that we couldn't more than a few feet. Plus, we couldn't tell the difference between a surgeon fish and a parrotfish. I haven't been back in the water since. My time has been filled with endangered cacti, watching manatee when I go on a run along a channel, and trying to find the elusive and invasive green iguanas that are in the park. Fortunately, those may all leave me with post for my blog. I'm about to write one up on coral popsicles.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Look to the Sea

Much of Biscayne National Park is underwater. To work in the park, I need to drive a boat a lot, so I spent my first week in a Motorboat Operator Certification Course (MOCC) which allows me to operate the boats on the park. Although much of the park is underwater it's not always very underwater. That is, it can be extremely shallow and navigating around the area can be difficult especially when wave action is high and it is difficult to see the reef or shoal ahead. Driving away from the headquarters on a park boat provides beautiful views of vast expanses of the bay, the park's islands and the open ocean. Indeed, it's the preferred direction to be looking in the park because when you look back toward headquarters there are three huge landmarks that can be used for navigation. Unfortunately, they're all eyesores. There's downtown Miami (the least offensive) to the North then one of the highest points in the surrounding area (perhaps in all of Florida)....a hill known as Mt. Trashmore. Yep. The tallest piece of land is a trash heap. A final navigational aid is known as Turkey Point. It's a huge nuclear power plant. Turkey Point is especially useful for navigating at night because it's the brightest thing around.
Having passed my MOCC tests I am allowed to drive under supervision until I have enough hours to take the boats out on my own. Once I finished those tests, I had to test for my "blue card" which is the certification that allows me to dive with the park service (red cards are for fire, etc.). Now I'm a DIT (diver in training) until I have enough dives to be a real diver with the park service. Fortunately, I have been able to do some work too. A few of us have started a new protocol in the park for doing reef fish surveys. It consists of a lot of sitting in one spot and spinning 'round and 'round. Since this is my first time diving in Florida, I'm learning a lot of new fish and seeing species that are new to me. I watched a beautiful Blue Parrotfish the other day for some time. It could be a little while before I have many pics from here, but I'll try to have some soon. I wish that I had had my camera a couple of days ago because I dove into a whole bunch of ctenophores (comb jellies) and the biggest jellyfish that I have ever seen. They were light pink (especially their gonads) and as big around as my waist. It was spectacular.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dead. Face down in the Sand, Sixteen Feet Under

My last dives in Bonaire consisted of damage assessment and attempting to pull corals that were broken or overturned by tropical-storm-turned-hurricane Omar. I wanted to share a few pictures of the damage from Omar. The storm overturned, broke, shattered or buried corals, especially those at the crest of the reef and in the shallows. Here a couple of connected brain corals (Diploria strigosa) are laying face down in the sand and rubble. I was able to turn this coral head over, along with others much larger (some much larger than me). However, in the end, after only a short time in the sand many polyps were dead. If I found a coral that was buried deep in the sand, it was almost always dead when I pulled it out. The white area in the mustard hill coral (Porites asteroides) below is the portion that died while in the sand. In some cases very old coral heads like the mountainous star coral (Montastrea annularis) in this picture was probably 4 feet tall, but bio-erosion had made its base very thin. The Montastrea cavernosa that was growing on the base of this structure was torn apart when the coral fell. Often severe damage occurred to other corals as Montastrea annularis broke into pieces and crushed other corals underneath.

Turning over these corals in Bonaire may have saved some polyps and a bit of the reef. I'm now in a park where damage occurs to corals not only from storms, but frequently from boats that crash into the coral. Richard Curry at Biscayne National Park is running a novel project to try and save the corals that are damaged from boat groundings. Soon I'll have a post about this very long-term experiment in a coral nursery. Hopefully I'll have more time to put into these posts in the near future (getting access to government computers takes a long time).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sequential Hermaphroditism: A Well-timed Sex Change

Sex change without surgery occurs in a number of animal species. It is known as sequential hermaphroditism. Some animals are hermaphroditic and have both male and female reproductive parts and others switch between the being male and female. Usually, this switch goes one way and is not reversed, such a strategy is known as sequential hermaphroditism. I see a lot of these sequential hermaphrodites on the reef. Some of the most colorful fish on the reef are parrotfish (see Fishes in the Sea Part 2 and 3). Generally the most colorful parrotfish that you're likely to see, like this stoplight parrotfish, are male, but most of those started out as females or as males that are incognito. Here's a picture of a large female. The typical sexual cycle for one of these fish is to start as a little juvenile female and at some point enter a harem and mate with the large, colorful, and desireable male controlling the harem. At some point, the big male is going to lose control of his harem because it gets to big and splits or he dies and at that point testosterone in the largest female will skyrocket and turn the female into an aggressive, harem guarding and colorful male. At this point the fish is said to be in its terminal phase. Turning male is the beginning of the end for these fish and the last sex that they'll be. At this point in its life, it will spend considerable time time fending off other males, including those that look female.
So if you see a pretty parrotfish that looks like it has makeup on its face, it's a male.