All posts by Jessica Prakke

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National Park Service Voucher Specimens to be Housed at SIS: the “Robblee Collection”

By Paul Larson

The culture of modern science is tending more and more toward open access to raw data. Just as it is good practice (and often required) to deposit DNA sequences in GenBank before publishing findings or to deposit phylogenetic results in TreeBASE, these studies and ecological studies that rely on species identification should be producing voucher specimens to be stored in collections like the one in Specimen Information Services here at FWRI. Through these collections, we may reinterpret or validate old results with modern methods, observe changes in species and populations through time, and leverage emerging technologies to extract new data from the past without the need for a time machine.

Through the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, several research projects conducted by Mike Robblee and colleagues in the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks yielded tens of thousands of fish and decapod crustacean specimens, all of which were retained by the National Park Service South Florida Collections Management Center. These specimens had been stored in bags contained by approximately 230 3-gallon buckets. Former SIS curator Dr. Robert Lasley secured a $95,000 grant from the National Parks Service to properly curate and maintain a subset of these specimens in SIS to serve as vouchers for those projects and to provide training opportunities for employees, students, and recent graduates in all aspects of stewardship of natural history collections.

The project is a multi-step process. Currently, we have two part-time employees and a small army of interns producing an inventory of the bucket contents and re-housing the specimens in archival containers. Next, we will develop a retention plan to select a subset of the specimens to be maintained as vouchers indefinitely within the collections here at FWRI. This retention strategy will be guided by the goals of the NPS, SIS, and the original research and monitoring projects. Finally, we will catalog the retained specimens and determine a fate for those specimens not to be retained (discard, donation, etc.).

Upon completion, this accession will serve as a resource for future investigations and as an archived documentation of the data collected in the course of the projects which have yielded these samples.

 

Investigating Loggerhead Sea Turtles and Where They Go When Not Nesting in Florida

By Simon Ceriani

Sea turtles, a long-living and highly migratory species, are a conservation concern that is primarily studied on nesting beaches, where they are easily accessible. However, only a small fraction of a female’s life is spent near a nesting beach. Reproductively active females undertake breeding migrations every 1 to 5+ years. These breeding migrations are often from distant foraging areas to their natal nesting beach, where they typically lay several clutches in a nesting season. Protecting sea turtle nesting habitat and monitoring nest counts is essential, but an understanding of where females are when they are not nesting (the majority of their time) is equally vital to ensure their protection.

The last decade has seen a growing interest in using stable isotopes, a type of intrinsic marker, as a tool to study migratory connectivity and identify foraging area locations. Work, combining satellite telemetry and stable isotope analysis, showed that post-nesting, satellite-tracked females migrating to geographically separate foraging areas can be identified by differences in their isotopic values. Thus, researchers have increasingly focused on sea turtle nesting aggregations by sampling nesting females and their nest and have used stable isotope analysis to infer foraging areas of larger numbers of untracked females.

Florida hosts ~90% of all the loggerhead nesting activity in the Southeast USA, yet few research groups encounter nesting females at night. In contrast, thousands of nests are marked to assess hatchling production through an extensive program coordinated by the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). In 2013, we began a statewide project aiming to identify loggerhead foraging hotspots and determine inter-annual contribution of foraging areas to the Florida nesting aggregation. The project relies on the support and help of over a dozen Marine Turtle Permit Holders across Florida that collect non-viable eggs from a subsample of loggerhead nests marked as a part of FWRI’s hatchling Productivity Assessment Program. Sampling occurs over the entire course of the loggerhead nesting season and reflects nesting temporal distribution.

A few thousand non-viable loggerhead eggs are then transferred to the Sea Turtle Migration Research lab at FWRI Headquarters in St. Petersburg where interns and volunteers help prepare the eggs for analysis. Stable isotope values of unhatched eggs are then used to infer foraging areas used by females during the non-reproductive season.

This study provides a non-invasive and non-destructive method of sampling a relatively large percentage of the loggerhead population nesting in Florida and represents the most comprehensive geographic assessment of foraging areas to date. Using unhatched eggs to assign females to foraging grounds provides an opportunity to:

  1. Sample at a much larger scale, fostering collaborations among research groups and stakeholders
  2. Obtain information that is more representative at the population level
  3. Begin understanding the relative importance of foraging areas and how each foraging ground contribution changes among years.

Conservation funds are limited and there is a need to prioritize where funds should be spent to maximize conservation outcomes. Understanding relative importance of foraging areas will allow us to make more informed management decisions by focusing mitigation and by-catch reduction measures to areas that are loggerhead hotspots.

The first two years of this work were conducted when the principle investigator was at the University of Central Florida and were funded by the Florida Sea Turtle Grants Program. The Sea Turtle Grants Program is funded from proceeds from the sale of the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate.  Since 2015, the scope and scale of the project augmented thanks to the support of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – ESA Section 6 grant.

Threats Assessments on the Peace and Withlacoochee River Watersheds

By Greg Knothe

By canoe, boat and airboat the threats assessment team (A.K.A. “The Bankfull Boyz”) are covering hundreds of river miles inventorying areas of habitat degradation on the Peace and Withlacoochee Rivers and major tributaries. Indicators of habitat degradation include:

  • active streambank erosion
  • streambank mass-wasting
  • sediment deposition
  • riparian zone degradation
  • channel alteration
  • potential areas of non-point source pollution

We are following a rapid assessment methodology developed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Panama City Ecological Services Office and David Rosgen’s Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply (WARSSS).

The whole project really boils down to sediment and river stability. So, why are we so fed up with sediment? The United States Environmental Protection Agency ranks sediment as the leading cause of water quality impairment in streams and rivers. Stream channel instability and accelerated erosion can have severe biotic impacts on food chains, habitat complexity, spawning and rearing habitats, instream cover and temperatures.

An example of a mass wasting bank assessed and inventoried during surveys on the Peace River.

The threats assessment project is a 3-year State Wildlife Grant funded study which is administered through FWC’s Florida’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative (FWLI). The project is match funded by FWC’s Aquatic Habitat Enhancement and Restoration Subsection (AHRE). The FWLI’s State Wildlife Action Plan listed the Peace and Withlacoochee as high ranking watersheds for habitat enhancement since they exhibit high potential for urban development, a high number of threats and a high number of Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The project is a joint venture with principal investigators within FWRI’s Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration (Freshwater Plants Program) and the Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, and collaborators including the USFWS and AHRE.

The Peace River (106 miles) flows south from its headwaters in Green Swamp to Charlotte Harbor, Florida’s second largest open water estuary. The Peace River Watershed has experienced high levels of habitat degradation due to urbanization, agriculture, phosphate mining and altered flow regimes. While water quality in Charlotte Harbor is generally considered “good,” the Southwest Florida Water Management District expressed concern regarding reduced streamflow in the Peace River and areas within the river where water quality ranked “fair” or “poor.” The threats assessment team has located, scored and inventoried an alarming 353 impairment sites on the Peace River and major tributaries, to date. The highest concentration of impairment sites is located in the river corridor between Zolfo Springs and Gardner. Most impairment sites appear to be a result of poor cattle grazing practices. In part, we theorize that the uprooting of countless trees by Hurricane Charley in 2004, in combination with cattle grazing, led to deterioration of the riparian zone and high channel instability.

The Withlacoochee River (141 miles) originates in the Green Swamp and flows northwest through a diverse range of habitats to Withlacoochee Bay before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. High urban development, pollution and altered flow regimes pose several threats to water quality within the watershed. Although the Withlacoochee River Watershed has been significantly altered through the construction of the Lake Rousseau Dam in 1909 and the Cross-Florida Barge Canal in the 1930’s, we have identified very few impairment sites (24 sites to date). This is largely due to the river and tributaries having an intact and vigorous riparian plant community, and there is little agriculture within the river’s riparian habitat. Another reason we are finding few impairment sites in the Withlacoochee River is because it was dammed. As a result, water levels were stabilized, which decreases stream power and shear stress, which in turn can decreases streambank erosion. So, while finding few impairment sites sounds like a positive thing, it’s a double-edged sword. The Withlacoochee River does not function like a free-flowing river and like the major issue with all reservoirs, we alter the natural flow regime of the system. Consequently, it’s common for rivers to be over widened above the dam due to backwatering and increased sediment, while being deeper and narrower below the dam since they are sediment starved (commonly called “Hungry Water”).

The Threats Assessment Team (from left to right Kyle Miller, Matthew Phillips and Greg Knothe) at the 2017 Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Watershed Summit.

 

The overall goal of the project is to develop a prioritized list of restoration projects for each watershed. Preliminary recommendations for proposed restoration actions include a passive approach of fencing out cattle from rivers and riparian habitat, and allowing degraded areas to naturally restore. In more highly disturbed areas, an active restoration approach would be required including re-grading high slope or mass wasting banks, creating a bankfull floodplain bench and re-vegetation of banks to prevent further erosion. In a worst-case scenario (i.e. highly degraded and incised stream with no connection to its floodplain), a new channel could be excavated at a higher elevation with bankfull benches and floodplain connectivity.

Family

By  Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We have all heard the phrase: “You can’t choose your family” which is usually employed when some family member distinguishes themselves through their less than stellar behavior. If we think about it, most of us would probably say that our most memorable moments of joy, pride, disappointment and heartbreak center on family. Despite our individual tendencies to be more introverted or extroverted, we evolved as social creatures and that group connection is probably more important than many of us realize.

I suspect the cynical among you bristle a bit when you hear the term “FWC Family” but I know for a fact there is meaning and substance behind those words. I have seen Executive Director Nick Wiley with his wife and boys numerous times and I assure you he would never use this term lightly. Even when they are navigating the tumultuous waters of teenage years, their closeness and commitment to each other is truly inspiring. Also, our shared sense of mission and recognition that the conservation challenges Florida faces will always outpace the resources we have available (and in some cases our ability) to meet them absolutely requires that we harness all of our collective expertise to be successful.

But can a group of thousands of FWC employees really be a family? Probably not in the literal sense but our shared values and commitment to supporting each other are certainly foundational attributes of a successful family. But we all recognize that our ability to personally connect with people in a meaningful way is limited to a certain number (our own resident extrovert Nick Wiley may be an outlier in this regard). In fact, there has been a lot written about the size of groups both from a cultural evolution sense and from the standpoint of group effectiveness.

For example, there is an evolutionary school of thought that claims that social group size in primates increased as brain size increased. In non-human primates, the social bond is often reinforced through grooming, which is not only the poster child for the invasion of personal space but also very time-consuming. There are only so many grooming partners you can take on in a day. As brain size increased, non-verbal communication and ultimately the development of language expanded the size of the core social group. Non-human primate social groups usually consist of relatively few individuals; a few dozen or perhaps one hundred at most. While resource constraints and other environmental factors are critically important, in general, these groups tend to split when the number gets beyond several dozen. In contrast, a review of group size in modern human hunter-gatherer societies around the world revealed that the mean village size is around 150 people, with the larger tribe consisting of perhaps 1200 individuals. The numbers are not radically different when we look at that uniquely human invention, the military. From Roman armies ca. 100 BCE to the current day, the size of a military company (the basic unit of an army) has remained remarkably the same at around 150 individuals (i.e. about the same size as the hunter-gatherer village). So clearly the ability of humans to connect at a level necessary to survive day-to-day or go into battle is baked into our being despite dramatic advances in technology and communication tools.

We have all had the experience of “too many cooks in the kitchen” – a spot-on euphemism for a group being too large to get the tasks at hand accomplished. My own personal version of expanding group size and unintended consequences comes from my family’s relatively short-lived attempt at holding annual reunions. Growing up in Michigan in the 1970s most of my extended family spent their days working at the “shop” which is the term they used for the group of General Motors auto manufacturing plants scattered around town (all shut down now). Their days consisted of welding the same part, tightening the same bolt or gluing the same fabric onto cars as they rolled by on the assembly line. Not surprisingly, they occupied their minds during these times of tedium by planning what sort of adventures they were going to get into when the whistle blew (yes there were actual whistles). This may have had something to do with the quality of American cars produced during that time. Needless to say, the gathering of several dozen of my extended family members for a reunion often did not end well. There would always be one or more family members who took advantage of this time (invariably facilitated by adult beverages) to air their family grievances accumulated over the decades for all to hear. I have (not so fond) memories of my mom and my aunt Betty spending the better part of one reunion in the back of a police car. While my brothers and I successfully negotiated their release (almost thwarted when my mom took a swing at a nice officer more than twice her size), by then much of the frivolity of the occasion had dissipated. At that point, we didn’t need to know about the relationship of brain size to primate social structure to figure out a smaller family gathering was in order.

While the FWC may not be a family in the literal sense of the word, we display the most admirable attributes of a family on a daily basis. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than with the tight-knit group of staff we have in the Florida Keys. As I write this, our staff in the Keys are just beginning to trickle back home from their evacuations. These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimately fear associated with this storm. Many staff members face significant challenges putting their lives back together. Through it all, this collective group of about 40 people has impressed me with their resilience, support for each other and positive attitude in the face of serious challenges. This group cohesion is made possible by the dedication and leadership of John Hunt, Tom Matthews, Bill Sharp, Alejandro Acosta, Bob Glazer, Kelly Sullivan and many others who have built a positive team dynamic that is second to none in this agency. To my knowledge, they do not regularly engage in social grooming, and they are a little large for a traditional family unit – but they are undeniably Family.

Bay Scallop Restoration

By Austin Heil

In 2016, we began a 10-year project to restore bay scallops to self-sustaining levels in Florida’s Panhandle. The objective of the scallop restoration project is to enhance the public’s use and enjoyment of Florida’s natural resources by enhancing depleted scallop populations and reintroduction to suitable areas from which scallops have disappeared. The restoration work includes enhancing local scallop populations in targeted areas through a combination of the harvest and redistribution of naturally-occurring juvenile and adult scallops supplemented with stocking from a commercial scallop hatchery. In addition to traditional approaches to restoration, our vision for restoring scallops also includes educating the public on our ongoing restoration projects and asking them to be contributing partners in these efforts.

Scallop Cages

Since the project began in 2016, we have worked with community members in St. Joseph Bay to collect scallops prior to the opening of the scallop season and place them in cages in an exclusion zone protected from harvest. We are currently working on developing partnerships with interested NGOs, county officials, schools, and the private sector to help restore scallops in St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrew Bay. Our plan is to provide scallops and predator exclusion cages to community members in these areas prior to the 2018 scalloping season. Community members will hang their cages with scallops from privately owned docks or, if they have a boat, they can place these cages in the bay. Volunteers must be willing to clean the cages at least once each month as well as monitor the scallops. We hope that by partnering with the community next year we will increase our chances of successful restoring scallops to St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrew Bay.

Staff Spotlight: Catalina Brown

 

The Fish Kill Hotline Coordinator for FWC, Catalina (Cat) Brown focuses on coordinating response to aquatic mortality events for the State of Florida.

Brown specializes in histology, and studied light and electron microscopy at Eckerd College and graduated with a Master’s degree in biological oceanography from USF Marine Science. Her Master thesis, “Ovarian morphology, oogenesis, and changes through the annual reproductive cycle of the female blue crab, Callinectis sapidus Rathbun, in Tampa Bay” focused on gonad staging using histological analysis.

Histology is the science of producing stained sections of preserved tissue on glass slides that can be examined under a microscope. Parasites, bacteria, and fungi, as well as pathological processes and abnormalities can be detected in these preserved tissues.  The techniques used in the FWRI Histology laboratory are similar to those used in hospitals where medical doctors and pathologists examine tissue. Histology is an important research tool for numerous research projects at FWRI, including Fish Biology, Fish Health, Endangered and Threatened Species, and Shellfish Biology. Tissue slides are used in determining the reproductive status of fish populations, the overall health of marine species that are important to Florida, and for the evaluation of pathologies and parasites.

A large part of the position involves providing information and educational support to the public on sport fish, red tide, fish identification, fishing regulations, data requests, and other marine related topics. Connecting with stakeholders regularly is a very rewarding part of the job. “They are naturally very interested in our research and like to hear the scientific information that I provide regarding marine and freshwater mortality and disease events,”  Brown said.

The Fish and Wildlife Health Group study disease and mortality in fish. They investigate abnormal specimens of fish and naturally occurring causes of fish kills, such as algal blooms, low dissolved oxygen, and low dissolved oxygen caused by algal blooms. In addition, the group studies diseases in wild fish populations related to water quality conditions, such as salinity and pH. Analysis of samples includes the use of many diagnostic tools.

 

Catch a Florida Memory with 10-Year-Old Katlyn Paul

By Jill Christoferson

Summer may be coming to a close, but for 10-year-old Katlyn Paul, this summer was one she’ll never forget. Katlyn submitted 10 different species to the 71-species Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Saltwater Fish Life List, one of three of our Catch a Florida Memory Saltwater Recognition programs. This qualified her for the first tier of the Saltwater Fish Life List Club.

Katlyn Triggerfish

Katlyn with her Saltwater Reel Big Fish qualifying gray triggerfish.

Shortly after, she also submitted a gray triggerfish to the Saltwater Reel Big Fish program, becoming the first angler to qualify for this species. In recognition of her efforts, she received FWC Catch a Florida Memory prize packs including T-shirts and certificates for each achievement. She will also receive two entries into a quarterly raffle drawing for fishing gear such as rods, reels and landing nets.

Katlyn’s love of the water runs deep, and working on her life list is more about the experience than the recognition.

“It’s really cool to go out with friends and see what’s out there,” Katlyn said.  “It’s fun to see the water react,” referring to the varying sea conditions and changes in water coloration of nearby St. Andrews Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

Katlyn

Katlyn has crossed a number of fish off her life list including this ladyfish.

Katlyn caught her first fish, a gag grouper, when she was just three, and she was hooked. Today, she is still going strong, enjoying quality time with her dad, Devin, and getting to explore the marine environment around her. She’s even expressed an interest in pursuing a career in marine biology, following her passion to explore the unknown creatures of the deep.

The Saltwater Fish Life List was developed as one way to encourage anglers to target a diversity of species, and according to Devin, that’s exactly what the life list has done for his family.

“We’re chasing species that we wouldn’t go for otherwise; species that I haven’t fished for in years,” he said.

To date, Katlyn has crossed spotted seatrout, ladyfish, dolphinfish, black sea bass, gag grouper, gray snapper, red drum, red snapper, Spanish mackerel and hardhead catfish off of her life list. Since she submitted her 10-fish application to the Saltwater Angler Recognition Program, she has also added a lane snapper, greater amberjack and her Saltwater Reel Big Fish qualifying gray triggerfish to her list of accomplishments.

Can you catch up with Katlyn? Join her in participating not only in the Saltwater Fish Life List Club program, but also the FWC’s two other Saltwater Angler Recognition programs: Saltwater Reel Big Fish, which celebrates memorable-sized catches, and Saltwater Grand Slams, which awards anglers for catching three different specified species within a 24-hour period.

You can also keep track of Katlyn’s pursuits on the Catch a Florida Memory Facebook page, External Website

Katlyn -snapper

Katlyn holding up a red snapper she caught.

Florida Scrub-Jay Translocation Research

By Karl E. Miller

Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) populations throughout the state are vulnerable from the effects of habitat fragmentation. The species is mostly sedentary and rarely disperses long distances through non-scrub habitat. Currently, >90% of the remaining scrub-jay populations consist of fewer than 25 family groups.

FWC staff are conducting experimental translocations of Florida scrub-jays to determine the feasibility of a state-wide translocation program to stabilize smaller populations and prevent genetic isolation. The conservation goal is to transport – or “translocate” – birds from a large, stable population in the Ocala National Forest to smaller populations where extensive habitat has been restored but has not been discovered or occupied by Florida scrub-jays. FWC researchers are following up these translocations with intensive monitoring to determine whether the donor population is resilient to the loss of birds and also to determine their impact on populations at recipient sites.

During winter 2017 (December 22-March 21), we relocated 9 Florida scrub-jays, constituting 4 family groups, from Ocala National Forest to Seminole State Forest, which is a distance of >32 km. This initial translocation was a collaborative effort between staff from FWC, the Florida Forest Service, and the US Forest Service.

Translocated groups were tracked using radio telemetry to determine the extent to which they moved throughout the landscape and to understand interactions with neighboring groups. All birds survived transport and release and soon established breeding territories within 200 m of where they were released. During the first week of July, the first successful nest fledged.

In Ocala National Forest, the territories that were vacated were soon occupied by other Florida scrub-jays, including some groups that immigrated from adjacent sub-optimal habitat patches that were heavily overgrown.

Overall, translocated birds appeared to acclimate well to recipient sites, and populations at donor sites did not appear to be negatively affected, which suggests that future translocations will be a worthwhile tool for stabilizing and increasing populations of Florida scrub-jays on managed lands. During winter 2018, we will increase the number of birds moved and the number of recipient sites involved and continue to test the effectiveness of moving different age classes of scrub-jays. We will also continue to test the effectiveness of novel transport and release methods.

Floods, Fires and Hurricanes

By Elina Garrison

In 2015, FWC and other agencies partnered with the University of Georgia and Joseph W. Jones Ecological Center to begin “The South Florida Deer Research Project” in Big Cypress National Preserve (BCNP) and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (FPNWR). One of the main objectives of the study is to understand how hydrology, fire and predators impact deer populations in the unique South Florida system. To date, the team has captured close to 300 deer and fitted 263 adult deer with GPS radio-collars, yielding over 548,000 locations. In addition, three camera grids containing a total of 180 remote-sensing cameras were deployed to monitor deer and other species. Thus far, the team has recorded and cataloged over 360,000 photos. The study was designed to include four years of field work in an effort to capture seasonal and annual fluctuations in weather, predation, and hunting pressure. However, none of us would have expected to capture the weather extremes we have thus far!

In winter 2016, a normally dry season turned into a record-breaking high water event. By February the water stage was over 12 inches above normal and exceeded the prior winter flood record of 1995. We documented unusual deer movement activity, for example, the number of deer detections in our camera grid in FPNWR more than doubled as deer from lower elevations moved to higher ground. Luckily, the duration of the winter 2016 high water event did not last as long as it had 1995.

January in Florda is typically in the middle of the dry season. However, in 2016, an unusual amount of rain caused record flooding throughout our study area.

In March 2017, one of the largest wildfires in Florida started in BCNP. It would eventually burn over 21,000 acres, including an area that contained one of the project’s camera grids and numerous collared deer. No mortalities of collared deer occurred due to the fire and interestingly, deer stayed within their established home-ranges as the woods around them burned. Furthermore, collar data demonstrated deer in proximity to the burn moved into the burned landscape shortly after.

June 2017 brought another flooding event; more rain fell in three days (over 15 inches) than had in the previous 36 weeks, breaking another record. In some areas of BCNP, the water level rose five feet in three days.

Just two days after the large Cowbell Fire burned through much of North Addition Lands, one of the GPS-collared female deer emerges from the burn with another deer.

 

The most recent event, Hurricane Irma, just occurred. The eyewall of this massive hurricane came within 25 miles of our study site. None of the collared deer died during the hurricane, and preliminary data indicate some that deer moved into pine flatwoods and tropical hammocks, but overall movement rate did not decrease during the storm.

These “record-breaking” events make field work difficult, but they give us insight into impacts of weather extremes that may become more common in the future. The data gathered, both through telemetry and remote cameras, will allow us to analyze how these extreme events impact deer survival, movement, habitat use, and recruitment of fawns, and other aspects of deer ecology. In addition, although the study is focused on white-tailed deer, the cameras capture all wildlife that use these areas, allowing us to examine the effects of extreme weather at a community level.

For more information and quarterly updates, please visit the South Florida Deer project website.