All posts by Jonathan Veach

Agency News

MarineQuest 2020 Moves to Online Format

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leadership has made the decision to move FWRI’s annual MarineQuest open-house to an online format. This decision will allow the event to proceed safely, with the added benefit of allowing Floridians and science-lovers from across the country (or from abroad!) to join in from the comfort of their own homes.

School Daze, an event exclusively for students and their teachers, will take place online Thursday, October 15th, with classes joining remotely for Q&A’s with scientists, activities, explorations of Florida flora and fauna, and more.

The MarineQuest online event will take place Saturday, October 17th. If you have any questions about MarineQuest 2020, please contact Jessica Pernell (Jessica.pernell@myfwc.com) or FWRI Communications (FWRI_Outreach@myfwc.com).

Research Spotlight

The State Reef Fish Survey

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is pleased to announce an expansion of recreational fishing surveys to collect enhanced data for reef fishes. The new State Reef Fish Survey (SRFS) builds on proven success along the Gulf Coast of Florida. The Gulf Reef Fish Survey (GRFS) was implemented in 2015 to provide more timely and precise data needed to manage and assess important reef fish stocks, which has supported enhanced recreational fishing opportunities along the west coast of Florida. The expanded statewide survey replaced GRFS and started July 1, 2020, which means that anglers and spear fishers are now able to contribute to improving data for important fish stocks along the Keys and Atlantic Coast of Florida, as well as the Gulf. SRFS will use several methods to collect vital information on recreational fishing for reef fishes, including a mail survey, in-person interviews, and at-sea observations.

The SRFS mail survey collects information on the types of reef fish that are important to anglers and divers who fish recreationally in Florida and helps gauge how often people participate in these economically important activities throughout the state. Anyone with the State Reef Fish Angler designation may receive a questionnaire in the mail that asks about saltwater recreational fishing activities over the past month. A new set of participants will be randomly selected each month, which means that individuals are only asked to provide this information periodically. The new State Reef Fish Angler designation is required for anyone 16 years of age and older to legally harvest certain reef fish when fishing recreationally from a privately-operated boat in Florida. This requirement is in addition to applicable saltwater recreational fishing license requirements.

The previous Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation was required on the west coast of Florida to legally harvest: red snapper, vermilion snapper, gray triggerfish, gag, red grouper, black grouper, greater and lesser amberjacks, banded rudderfish, and almaco jack. Three additional species are included in the new statewide requirement: hogfish, mutton snapper, and yellowtail snapper. Anyone with a State Reef Fish Angler designation may harvest all 13 reef fish species anywhere in Florida, in accordance with all applicable size and bag limits, seasons, and gear requirements. Anglers and spear fishers with a valid Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation will have all the same privileges as the statewide designation and do not need to sign up again until it is time to renew. At the time of renewal, make sure to request the new State Reef Fish Angler designation.

In-person interviews will be conducted by FWC biologists at boat ramps and marinas throughout the state to collect detailed information on the numbers and types of reef fishes harvested during recreational fishing. Interviews will be conducted at sites where recreational boat parties that target reef fishes are more likely to return, and these data will supplement interviews also conducted over a larger number of sites as part of the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). The FWC is a cooperative partner in this national survey, administered through NOAA Fisheries, that provides vital statistics for a wide variety of state- and federally-managed saltwater finfish in Florida. By supplementing the national survey, FWC biologists will intercept anglers and spear fishers that specifically target reef fish species more frequently. These types of trips are less common than those targeting popular near-shore species, such as seatrout, red drum, flounder, and snook. Using the dockside interview data in combination with the mail portion of SRFS, described above, will enable FWC to provide a more precise measure of the total numbers of reef fishes harvested and released during recreational fishing in Florida. On the Gulf Coast, this has led to longer recreational fishing seasons in state and federal waters for red snapper and greater flexibility for managers to re-open the fishery when a season is impacted by weather and other unforeseen factors. On the Atlantic Coast of Florida, FWC will continue enhanced survey efforts during federal harvest seasons for red snapper in addition to the new SRFS. The enhanced survey efforts are still needed to closely track red snapper landings in-season, and the new survey will provide more precise estimates for fish released year-round.

In addition to the mail survey and dockside interviews, anglers fishing recreationally from for-hire vessels may also be accompanied by an FWC biologist to observe reef fishes that are released at-sea. This information provides important insight into the overall health of fish stocks, how many fish will be available to harvest in future years, and how well fish survive following catch-and-release. Information provided through the mail survey, dockside interviews, and at-sea observations will also help fishery managers better understand the relative importance of artificial and natural reef habitats in Florida.

Recreational fishing is a valued past-time for Floridians and is an important driver for the economy of this state. Together, all of the data collected through the new State Reef Fish Survey will provide a clearer picture of the health of reef fish stocks throughout the state and help ensure the long-term sustainability of recreational fishing in Florida.


Director Message

The Power of One

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Our world is made up of systems with individual interacting parts.  Ecological, biological, chemical, physical, social and economic systems determine pretty much everything that happens within, around and to us.  Much of the history of science has been concerned with defining fundamental units that make up systems and determining how they interact to produce various outcomes. 

Classical evolutionary theory tells us that the individual is the agent of natural selection.  Those individuals that are best adapted to survive and reproduce pass heritable traits down to their offspring.  But individuals do not evolve biologically during their lifetime.  The population of which they are a part evolves over time due to the differential contributions of individuals with high value inheritable traits.  That is how we get new species and how the tree of life on earth came to be.  Of course, the individuals within a population aren’t aware of these processes, they are simply doing their best to survive and reproduce – but by doing so they are the engines of evolution at the population level.  The changes only become apparent as new species become distinguishable from their ancestors in some way.

When we model fish and wildlife populations, we rarely have information that distinguishes individuals other than basic measures such as age (or more often age class), size, sex and reproductive status.  We know there is individual variation that is important to capture and that some individuals contribute disproportionately to future generations based on their unique individual characteristics.  For many fish species, older and larger females produce not only more eggs but eggs of higher quality.  For many animals physical or behavioral traits such as large size or specific plumage, or the ability to dance well (think sandhill cranes) can be the difference makers.  From an analytical perspective, it is quite simple to model populations at the individual level (individual based models or IBMs) but we rarely have the data to create these types of models.

Similarly, classical economic theory, first synthesized by the Scotsman Adam Smith in the late 18th century, describes a self-regulating system where competition, supply and demand and individual self-interest keep things in check.  This free market perspective (colloquially known as the “invisible hand”) was embraced by our founding fathers and is fundamental to our system of government.  What is often not appreciated is that classical economic theory assumes that individuals act in a way that optimizes economic utility – a measure of value or satisfaction that one gets from a product or service.  In other words, it assumes that people make choices in unbiased, rational ways.  Common sense tells us this is not the case, but this assumption has driven economic theory for more than two centuries.  In the last few decades, economists have realized the profound interactions that occur as psychology and economics work together to determine the choices individuals make.  Very few decisions are truly unbiased, they are affected by messages received from peer groups, advertising or perception of quality or luxury.  Most of us can cite a purchase we made that wasn’t necessarily an item we needed (or maybe even wanted) but it was a “good deal”.  The University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler is a pioneer in linking psychology and economic theory and was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2017 for his work.

The examples cited above, in which choices at the individual level determine emergent properties of large complex systems such as biological populations or economies, are directly relevant to the social challenges, we face today.  The COVID-19 virus is highly transmissible between individuals and the spread of the disease is driven by human behavior and individual choice.  While we are hopeful that regulatory actions, guidelines relative to large gatherings and the unprecedented effort to develop vaccines pay off in the long run, the infection rate (along with the deaths) will only come down if individuals make the choice to adopt safe practices such as avoiding large groups, regular hand washing and wearing face coverings when social distancing is not possible. 

The United States’ complex history with race relations is not unique among nations of the world, but our relatively young country has progressed and regressed on these issues.  Starting with the 3/5 clause in our constitution, which ultimately allowed white supremacy to maintain a foothold in the south, and moving through the horrors of slavery, the unfulfilled promise of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and fits and starts associated with the civil rights movement, we are left with the current reality consisting of significant social, educational and economic disparity.  But no one is born with racist beliefs.  These are learned behaviors and perspectives and therefore can be changed if one has the courage to stand up for the greater good.  It is important to note that the concept of race itself has little meaning scientifically.  To draw arbitrary lines along the continuum of existing human genetic diversity makes little sense.   In fact, the genetic diversity among the entire human population on earth (0.1%) is less than that of chimpanzees (1.2%) which means two things:  our ancestral human population was at one time reduced to a very small number and we are all much closer than we realize.

It is easy to become quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges with large systematic problems such as COVID-19, a wounded economy, and fractured race relations but these issues are “systems” in the broad sense, and fundamental change can occur as the result of choices made at the individual level.  We each have the power to affect positive change, if we have the courage to do so.

Staff Spotlight

This issue Nadia Gordon with Wildlife Research/Marine Mammals was kind enough to spend some time answering our questions for Staff Spotlight. Thank you, Nadia.

FWRI Section/Location:
Wildlife Research/Marine Mammals located at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Experience:
Research Associate – Jacksonville Northeast Field Lab lead, Dec. 2010 to current

Supervisor of Mammals – Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Animal Curator – World Wildlife Kingdom

BS – Northern Illinois University

What are you working on now?
Day to day work can be dynamic since we receive calls from the public on marine mammals that may need rescue or strand, along with the salvage of marine mammal carcasses. In collaboration with a Jacksonville University D.V.M., our lab (Allison Burns and Kyanna Tamborini) is working to publish a paper on a dolphin stranding case. I’ve also been maintaining our section’s manatee rescue database and assisting in the rescue report editing process. I participate on monthly calls regarding the ongoing large whale Unusual Mortality Events. This afternoon I’ll be working on our monthly vehicle and vessel inspection checklists; we are always maintaining equipment in preparation for marine mammal rescues and necropsies.  

How is this information beneficial?
FWC contributes significantly to the evaluation of threats facing marine mammals and provides key information on health and mortality factors to resource managers and partner agencies. FWC participates within the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership, a multiagency effort to rescue, release, and track rehabilitated manatees.  The manatee rescue database is complementary to mortality information, both provide insights into how and where manatees may be at greater risk, including from vessel-collisions, water control structures, or from natural causes such as cold-stress. The information may also be requested by the public or outside agencies, such as a recent request on how many manatees have been rescued due to ingesting or becoming entangled in plastics and debris.  

What is your typical work day like?
No day is typical, especially when you field calls from the public. In northeast Florida our responsibilities also change seasonally. Manatees migrate south in the winter, but that is when we welcome the North Atlantic right whales and assist with research and participate in yearly large whale disentanglement training.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?
Not my accomplishment, but I previously worked for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and was heavily involved in their team assisting FWC’s Marine Mammal Section. (I didn’t realize I was building my resume for a career with FWC.) Once I became an FWC employee, the Zoo asked if I would assist on their committee to build a manatee critical care rehabilitation facility, which opened in 2017. It was special to be part of a long-term goal coming to fruition.

What are some of your biggest challenges?
I’d say working during the COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge, but one I feel our Institute is managing well. The animal related challenges are typically feel-good stories in the end. I recall our team working with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue over 6 hours to free a live manatee from a storm drain or working with engineers and the City of Daytona to free a manatee cow and her calf trapped behind a walled off retention pond after hurricane Dorian. Both rescues were live streamed, which although is a great way to communicate with the public, can be stressful.

What do you like most about your career?
I like the people I work with and the common interests we share. I appreciate the variety of species we are involved with from manatees and dolphins to beaked whales and North Atlantic right whales, even the occasional wayward seal. I also enjoy collaborating with other organizations. I believe the relationships we build with people make a difference.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?
Yes, animals were always an interest of mine and started before I was a toddler trying to pet a bumblebee. (That didn’t go well.)

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?
I’d find a way to get paid to travel to exotic places surrounded by nature.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Volunteering is a great way to learn about career opportunities. It not only opens your eyes to possibilities, but also allows an individual to see all aspects of a field, for better or worse. 

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoy time with friends, running with a local run group at the beach, and in June of this year I adopted a shelter dog who’s learning to paddleboard. When I get the opportunity, I love to travel and explore new places (above and below water!).

Scallop Sitter Project Temporarily Postponed

Florida’s bay scallops (Argopectin irradians) have been called the potato-chips of the marine ecosystem – everything loves to eat them. Short-lived and widely consumed by a large array of predators – including humans – bay scallop numbers can fluctuate from year to year. Declining populations in many areas of the Gulf Coast prompted this effort, called the Scallop Sitter Project that began in 2016 to restore bay scallops in Florida’s panhandle. Overall goals of this project are to increase scallop abundance and recreational fishing opportunities in the Florida Panhandle. The Scallop Sitter Project is a volunteer program that involves local community members in the ongoing scallop restoration efforts of FWRI biologists.

The project is funded by restoration money set aside after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and is intended to increase recreational fishing opportunities in the Florida Panhandle. The objectives of the project are to increase depleted scallop populations in some bays and reintroduce scallops in other suitable areas from which scallops have disappeared. Restoration efforts are focused on coastal estuaries within the Florida Panhandle.

FWRI biologists collect scallops before the opening of the scallop season and place them in cages in an exclusion zone in St. Joseph Bay that is protected from harvest. In addition, every year adult scallops are transported from St. Joseph Bay to a hatchery which then provides scientists with juvenile scallops the following year. Placing scallops in cages protects them from predators while also increasing the likelihood that scallops will successfully produce offspring during spawning season. In addition, biologists provide community volunteers with scallops to place in cages in St. Joseph and St. Andrew Bays. Volunteers maintain cages of scallops and report monthly survival and salinity data.

Monitoring of bay scallop spat (juvenile bay scallops) settlement is done using spat collectors during the peak settlement period for bay scallops, from August through March. In addition, spat that settle on collectors are used for restoration purposes. Surveys of adult scallop abundance are conducted in the spring and fall by diving and counting scallops along a transect. Planting scallops in cages and maintaining scallops is done throughout the year. The scallop sitter project takes place from July through December each year. Monitoring of scallop harvest is done through aerial surveys and boat ramp intercepts during the scallop season, which is from July through September. Spawning and grow-out of scallops for restoration purposes takes place from August through April of each year.

The Division of Marine Fisheries Management may use these modeling efforts to manage the recreational scallop fishery in Florida. The project began in April 2018 and is expected to end in December 2026. Funds from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment grant helped fund this project, which came from restoration money set aside after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. If this project is successful, the model could be used to restore scallops in other areas of the state.

Due to the current pandemic, managers have decided to cancel the Scallop Sitter program for the 2020 summer season in an effort to protect the health of our volunteers. We want to thank all of our volunteers that were interested in participating in this year’s event. Please stay tuned for updates about next year’s Scallop Sitter program. We cannot wait to work together with our volunteers again soon!

The Hidden Promiscuity of Shoalgrass: Observations of Sexual Reproduction in Tampa Bay

By Penny Hall

Halodule wrightii, commonly called shoalgrass, is a fast-growing, pioneering seagrass species with a pantropical distribution.  As seagrass ecologists we’ve been taught that sexual reproduction is largely unimportant to the ecology of H. wrightii, and that growth is primarily due to clonal expansion.  For the past 60 years, the consensus view has been that population connectivity and maintenance of genotypic diversity were the products of frequent, storm-driven fragmentation events and rare seed setting, respectively.  Apart from the discovery of a few seed bank hot spots in coastal Texas, USA, this idea has been reinforced by a lack of evidence for sexual reproduction elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.  Halodule wrightii flowers, especially female flowers, are inconspicuous, and their ephemeral nature hinders documentation in the field; however, the broad geographical distribution of shoalgrass suggests that sexual reproduction is more common than the literature indicates.

After an historic mass mortality of Thalassia testudinum left vast areas of central Florida Bay bare in the summer of 2015, we observed a rapid influx of H. wrightii, sparking debate about the possible existence of seed banks.  Sediment cores collected from these areas in 2017 contained seeds, suggesting either a long-term seed bank or the un-noticed sexual reproduction of H. wrightii persisting in the understory a dense T. testudinum canopy.  This finding encouraged us to look for evidence of sexual reproduction elsewhere in the state.  To date, we have documented flowers and/or seeds in every estuary we have sampled, including St Andrews Bay, the Big Bend, Charlotte Harbor – and received word of seeds from the Florida Panhandle to the Indian River Lagoon.  It appeared past time to better understand the reproductive ecology of this important early colonizer.  With the help of an intrepid Eckerd College intern, we set out to map seed banks throughout Tampa Bay. Using a coring technique based on our previous efforts, we collected samples from 5 sections of the bay, all in shallow H. wrightii and mixed-species beds, during the winter of 2019.  What we discovered is evidence for widespread, albeit sparse, seed reserves and fairly commonplace flowering throughout Tampa Bay.  Then, in May of 2019, a serendipitous return to our Boca Ciega Bay seed hotspot yielded widespread flowering in the area, both sexes in abundance, followed by fruit maturation that appeared to take an additional month.  What to make of these preliminary data is not yet clear, but it is certain that our understanding of H. wrightii population structure and movement ecology can no longer ignore its reproductive capacity.  Much more sexual reproduction is happening than previously appreciated.

Our plans to continued work at these sites included genetics, seed viability tests, estimates of pollination distances, and more exacting floral and seed counts, as well as a proper botanical description of floral structures and fruit maturation.  But, as with so much in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a halt to our plans.  It appears that the sexual secrets of this ubiquitous, yet enigmatic, plant are safe for at least another season.

Adapting to a Changing Gulf Region, A New Online Course is Now Live

By Lily Becker

Adapting to a Changing Gulf Region, a new online course hosted by FWC, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP), and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA), launched in June with biweekly seminars ongoing through early October.  The course covers a broad curriculum of climate change adaptation and resilience topics across nine distinct sessions.  Aligned to ASAP’s Knowledge and Competencies Framework for Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Professionals, each session includes a presentation on a foundational climate change adaptation concept tied to one or more illuminating regional case studies.  Session topics span from introductory concepts in climate change adaptation for natural resources to more integrative, interdisciplinary areas of focus aimed at weaving connections between the changing role of resource managers and conservation practitioners in an uncertain future and the broader themes of community resilience, the built environment, building trust and stakeholder engagement, and equity and justice.  Read the full course syllabus here for more detail.

As are the session topics, the roster of participants enrolled in the course is broad.  The one hundred natural resource and conservation practitioners from across the Gulf Coast region taking the course this summer represent a broad range of locations, areas of expertise, sectors, and career stages.  Beyond simply learning new ideas, the course aims to offer an opportunity for those enrolled to build connections with each other and become more familiar with regional adaptation and resilience projects recently completed or in-progress. 

While enrollment for the course is now closed, the good news is that all seminar sessions are open for anyone to audit on a drop-in or recurring basis.  While sessions on the Climate-Smart Conservation Cycle, managing for change, vulnerability, and communicating climate change have now past, much more is still to come!  In August, we look forward to learning about making the jump from planning to implementing adaptation (August 12th) and overcoming barriers to climate change adaptation (August 26th).  September will bring two more sessions addressing risk and ethically integrating urban resilience priorities with natural resource management.  Finally, a synthesis session on October 7th will bring the inaugural course to a close.  Register here to attend any or all upcoming sessions.

Range Extension of Spotted Bullhead in the Withlacoochee River South

By Jennifer Moran

The Spotted Bullhead, Ameiurus serracanthus, has one of the smallest known distributions in the genus Ameiurus and can be found in southeastern Alabama, southern Georgia, and northern Florida. It’s current known range in Florida is restricted to rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico which include the Yellow, Ochlockonee, Apalachicola, Choctawhatchee, Suwannee, St. Marks, and St. Andrews Bay basins. They are typically found in small to medium rivers with slow to moderate currents and prefer deeper water with rock or sand substrate. However, they also occur over mud bottoms typically near stumps or woody debris. Spotted Bullheads can be distinguished by a black blotch on the base of the dorsal fin, a relatively large eye, dark barbels, and round light or yellow colored spots on a dark body (cover image). They also have 15-20 large saw-like teeth on the posterior edge of their pectoral spines.   

In June 2020, 11 FWRI freshwater fisheries research biologists completed an electrofishing sample below the Lake Rousseau dam on the Withlacoochee River South near Yankeetown. We sampled 34 100-m sites in accordance with the long-term monitoring river protocol over two days and collected 8 Spotted Bullheads on 7 different sites (Figure 2). This is the first reported Spotted Bullhead collection south of the Suwannee River which was thought to be the southern extent of their range. The Spotted Bullheads collected were sampled near limestone outcroppings over sand, rock, and mud bottoms. Total length and weight ranged from 64-219 mm and 3-155 g respectively. We collected one individual as a voucher specimen from the random selected transects. On the second day of sampling, a more efficient sampling method that consisted of lowering the pulse rate setting was used to collect 4 more individuals. Using lower pulse rate settings have been found to be an effective way to sample catfish. The bullheads collected on the second day were preserved and tissue samples were collected for genetics, both of which will be deposited into the Florida Museum of Natural History and available for future work.

Figure 2: Locations of Spotted Bullheads collected on randomly selected transects along the lower Withlacoochee River South.

Previous sampling on the Withlacoochee River South included other native catfish species such as Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis), Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), Tadpole Madtom (Noturus gyrinus), andWhite Catfish (Ameiurus catus). The collection of Spotted Bullheads in the Withlacoochee River South extends the known range by 20 miles south from the Suwannee River. Other sampling efforts on the Withlacoochee and surrounding rivers have not documented Spotted Bullheads which could be attributed to the amount of effort as well as the type of habitat being sampled. Analysis of the genetic material collected during this sampling event can be used to determine if this population is genetically distinct from samples collected previously on the Suwannee and other rivers within the known range. More sampling needs to be done on other rivers south of the Suwannee to capture a more accurate picture of the Spotted Bullheads newly extended range which could include the Waccasassa, Rainbow, and upper part of the Withlacoochee River South. The 11 biologists that were involved in the sampling event are currently collaborating on publishing this exciting find in a note.

Effects of Translocation on Gopher Frog Movement and Survival

By Traci Castellón and Anna Deyle

Mitigation translocation is an increasingly common practice that involves moving animals out of harm’s way at development sites and releasing them somewhere else. However, the conservation value of translocation has been questioned because survival is often low and there are potential risks to existing populations at release sites (e.g., disease transmission). Translocation of amphibians in particular has been debated due to early failures, but outcomes have improved with time.

The gopher frog (Lithobates capito) is a species of conservation concern that frequently lives with gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) in their burrows. Because they live in tortoise burrows, gopher frogs are often encountered when burrows are excavated for gopher tortoise translocation, a relatively common mitigation technique in Florida. Although gopher frogs have occasionally been translocated along with tortoises, until now there had been no systematic effort to monitor their survival.

To assess the potential value of gopher frog translocation, biologists with FWRI and HSC conducted an experimental translocation of 23 gopher frogs and used radio-telemetry to compare their survival and movements to 24 non-translocated frogs. Survival of translocated frogs was only slightly lower (59%) than that of non-translocated frogs (66%), and there was no indication of long-distance dispersal or homing behaviors that sometimes cause translocation failure.

The most important predictor of frog mortality was movement outside the safety of burrows, where frogs were vulnerable to mortality from predation and roadkill. Mortality was higher for translocated frogs because many dispersed from their release burrows, then made extensive movements through the unfamiliar landscape. These movements and associated mortality were elevated during the first month following translocation, but surviving frogs eventually settled into burrows where survival was high. Non-translocated frogs also had high mortality during surface movements, but their movements were primarily associated with visits to breeding ponds.

Dispersal away from release sites is a typical response to translocation for many groups of animals, as is the eventual “settling” behavior we observed. The high mortality immediately following release is also common and considered a “cost” of translocation. Nonetheless, more than half of the translocated frogs survived and may now contribute to long-term persistence of the population where they were released. These results provide preliminary support for gopher frog translocation as a conservation measure, particularly when all suitable habitat at a development site will be destroyed. However, given the mortality we observed, leaving frogs at development sites may be a better option when suitable habitat and breeding ponds will remain.

      Because frogs’ movements immediately after release strongly influenced mortality, research is needed to evaluate soft release techniques, such as short-term penning that prevents animals from immediately leaving the area and helps them settle. Soft release has improved outcomes for other taxa, but it has not been adequately investigated for amphibians. Further research is also needed to assess longer term survival and reproductive success of translocated frogs, as well as potential risks to recipient populations.

Identifying Mangrove-Coral Habitats in the Florida Keys

By Dr. Ryan P. Moyer

The coral reefs of the Florida Keys serve as critical habitat to over 200 species of greatest conservation need and the geologic framework of reefs serves as a natural barrier that protects shorelines and coastal communities by reducing impacts from waves, storm surges, and tsunamis. However, coral reefs in Florida, and the important ecosystem services they provide, have experienced critical degradation and continue to decline due to several synergistic local and global stressors, including coral bleaching, disease, coastal development, overfishing, and nutrient enrichment. While the causes and trajectories of coral reef degradation have been known for decades, recent modeling studies indicate that coral reefs worldwide will continue to deteriorate, primarily due to thermal-driven coral bleaching plus ocean and coastal acidification

This multiple-stressor attack on coral reefs has motivated searches for natural refugia where climate threats to corals are mitigated. Refugia have been defined as “habitats that components of biodiversity retreat to, persist in, and can potentially expand from under changing environmental conditions”. The complex interplay among climate, oceanographic, and biological factors that influences susceptibility and resilience of reefs has made identification and characterization of such refugia for corals challenging. While often found near coral reefs, mangrove habitats are not usually thought of as suitable for coral recruitment and growth because of high sedimentation rates, lack of suitable substratum, and inadequate water quality. However, a number of recent studies have identified several locations around the world with corals growing on or near mangrove prop roots In some of these locations, mangroves are sheltering corals even in the face of extreme variability in pH, dissolved oxygen, and temperature, resulting in lower incidences of bleaching and high rates of recovery. The mangrove-canopy shading reduces light stress and a combination of hydrodynamic and biogeochemical processes in some of these mangrove-coral habitats can locally buffer pH

Several colonies of finger coral (Porites sp.) growing on red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) prop roots in the lower Florida Keys. Mangrove prop roots typically serve as robust habitat for sponges, bryozoans, and mollusks, but rarely host scleractinian corals.

The increasing number of global reports of mangrove-coral habitats and the lack of any information to date for Florida waters motivated a collaboration between the US Geological Survey and the FWRI Coastal Wetlands Research Program to survey approximately 76 km of mangrove shoreline in the Upper and Lower Keys to determine if scleractinian corals were using mangroves as habitat. A combination of satellite imagery and benthic-habitat maps were used to identify areas that we hypothesized would best support mangrove-coral habitats. Areas in the Upper Keys (Biscayne Bay/Card Sound/Largo Sound) were surveyed 4–8 October 2019 and areas in the Lower Keys (between Big Pine Key and Boca Chica Key) were surveyed 7–11 January 2020. Areas surveyed were recorded using a hand-held GPS, noting presence or absence of corals along a given shoreline. When corals were located, each coral species was visually identified, photographed, and abundances were manually counted and recorded. This was the first study to systematically search for and identify mangrove-coral habitats in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) and provide a basic environmental characterization of them.

Areas where corals were growing directly on and under mangrove prop roots (prop-root-coral habitats) and where they were growing under the shade of the mangrove canopy (channel-coral habitats) were documented during the study. Areas with corals growing on prop roots were characterized by roots hanging into undercut channels and/or with strong tidal currents and often connections to adjacent open-ocean waters. Coral species found growing on and directly adjacent to prop roots included P. porites (multiple morphs, also known as P. furcata and P. divaricata), S. radians and F. fragum. Channel-coral habitats predominantly hosted S. radians, although single colonies of Solenastrea bournoni and Stephanocoenia intersepta and several S. siderastrea were observed. There was circumstantial evidence indicating that additional mangrove-coral habitats existed on oceanside and backcountry islands but were destroyed by Hurricane Irma. While these mangrove-coral habitats may be refugia for corals threatened by climate change and disease outbreaks in the Florida Keys, further evaluation is needed to determine if these habitats could contribute to coral restoration efforts.