All posts by Jonathan Veach

Small Investment, Big Returns

By Phil Stevens 

The acoustic telemetry research activities in the Finfish Biology subsection of Marine Fisheries Research continue to deliver . . . in surprising fashion.

Answering concerns expressed by Florida panhandle anglers about the status of cobia in the Gulf of Mexico, a pilot project was conducted in Pensacola, Florida seeking to connect cobia (Rachycentron canadum) research between Gulf and Atlantic waters. And connect it did!

Typically, cobia, a coastal migratory species, are abundant along panhandle beaches during spring. The popular paradigm is that cobia migrate from warm wintering grounds in south Florida towards the productive Mississippi delta. Northern gulf anglers have noted decreases in catches during recent years and tournament records appear to support these anecdotal observations. Partly in response to these concerns, the FWC reduced daily bag limits of cobia in state waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers formed relationships with knowledgeable captains to facilitate this pilot project, creating important relationships upon which future research by FWC and other institutions will be based. Thanks to their eager cooperation, six cobia were tagged with acoustic transmitters off Pensacola and two acoustic receivers were deployed in April 2017.

Tequesta biologist Jim Whittington surgically implants an acoustic tag into a cobia.

The receivers were retrieved by Finfish Biology divers in late May 2018. Logic and experience suggest such a low saturation of transmitters and receivers would have a low probability of yielding meaningful results. But, half of the six cobia were detected on the Pensacola receivers within miles of where they were originally tagged. Another tagged cobia was harvested farther east at Destin, Florida on November 2, 2017. Surprisingly, one Pensacola tagged fish was detected on receivers deployed off Cape Canaveral along the Atlantic coast of east-central Florida!

But it gets even better. The two Pensacola receivers that were deployed detected two cobia that were originally tagged off Cape Canaveral during Aug. 3-4, 2016. One of these was detected on receivers in the Florida Keys, then was detected later at two stations off Pensacola in June and July, 2017. It then returned to the Ft. Pierce area in southeast Florida where it was harvested on December 3, 2017. The other cobia that was tagged at Cape Canaveral was detected on receivers in the Keys, and was last detected off Pensacola on May 1, 2018.

The results of this pilot project with its scant resources have been significantly more fruitful than expected. The boundaries of the Gulf of Mexico cobia stock include southeast Florida based on genetic analysis. What appear to be fairly regular movements of cobia between at least Pensacola and Cape Canaveral supports this stock delineation and provides information on the northern extent of the stock boundary in southeast Florida, which has been uncertain. Expanded research should continue to close knowledge gaps about this important gamefish.

Research Spotlight

FWRI Biologists Work to Restore Flatwoods Salamander Populations in Apalachicola National Forest

Subsisting primarily on a diet of earthworms and spiders, the silvery-gray reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi) and the frosted flatwoods salamander (A. cingulatum) inhabit the pine flatwoods-wiregrass ecosystems of the panhandle of our state. Both species of salamanders are long and slender, with a maximum length of about 5.2 inches (13 centimeters).

The frosted flatwoods salamander and the reticulated flatwoods salamander depend on isolated herbaceous ephemeral ponds situated within longleaf pine savannas and mesic flatwoods to complete their life cycles. Adults migrate from their upland retreats to breeding sites on rainy nights from October through December. Long thought to be a single species, the flatwoods salamander was listed as federally threatened in 1999. Subsequent genetic analyses revealed that the flatwoods salamander was actually two evolutionary separate but ecologically similar lineages. In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service amended its listing of the flatwoods salamander, listing frosted flatwoods salamander as a Threatened species, and the reticulated flatwoods salamander as an Endangered species. Most known populations of flatwoods salamanders have been lost to the destruction of the longleaf pine ecosystem, which has largely been converted to development, commercial pine plantations, or agricultural uses. Populations that remain on public conservation lands continue to decline and disappear. Flatwoods salamander breeding habitats were historically maintained by early summer lightning-ignited wildfires that burned through shallow wetlands when they were dry. Modern prescribed fire practices favor burning under unnaturally cool and wet conditions of winter and spring, causing fire to be excluded from inundated wetlands. The result is that most breeding sites have become thickly encroached with woody trees and shrubs, eliminating the plant communities that the salamanders require for nesting and larval survival.

The frosted flatwoods salamander.

Our Uplands Habitat biologists are currently in the Apalachicola National Forest sampling plants in ephemeral ponds that have undergone restoration to make them suitable for flatwoods salamander breeding. FWRI researchers are working to quantify vegetation characteristics—such as plant species composition, abundance, and distribution—that have been qualitatively described for flatwoods salamander nesting habitat. For example, pipeworts (Eriocaulon spp.) and switchgrasses (Dichanthelium spp.) are important plants sought out by the flatwoods salamander because females lay eggs on the moist soil beneath their leaves.

Over the last two winters, FWC biologists in the Reptile and Amphibian Research lab have worked long hours headstarting larval frosted flatwoods salamanders in the Apalachicola National Forest. The aim of headstarting is to boost salamander numbers in critical populations until their breeding ponds can be restored to suitability.  Staff scientists collect eggs from dry breeding ponds in December and bring them in to the lab. Once the embryos develop sufficiently, the eggs are hatched into large water-filled “cattle tank” mesocosms. Because mesocosms are food-rich and predator-free environments, larval survival rates can be much higher than in the wild.  In April and May, larval salamanders are captured from the mesocosms as they lose their gills and transform to air-breathing metamorphs. They are marked with coded color tags or microchips, and released them back into their ponds of origin. Breeding ponds are monitored to determine if headstarted salamanders successfully return to breed in subsequent years.

View our Flickr album documenting the efforts to boost the population of this rapidly declining salamander species.

Warm congratulations to FWRI biologist, Pierson Hill, for receiving the Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) 2018 Conservation Hero Award! This award is given in recognition for making significant contributions to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in the southeast region, and successfully achieving on-the-ground conservation for herpetofauna by preventing loss of species or their habitats. Pierson is working on several projects focused on recovering populations of the critically imperiled frosted flatwoods salamander.

Biologist inserting a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag into a salamander. These tags are similar to the microchips used for pet cats and dogs. Each tag is a bit larger than a grain of rice and contains a unique ID that can be read with a handheld scanner.

Over the past two winters, Pierson has led a team that collected and hatched salamander eggs that would have otherwise perished due to unusually dry conditions. The team has rescued over 2000 eggs, donated more than 400 for captive breeding efforts, and released 1300 metamorph salamanders back into the wild. His efforts have provided a critical boost to rapidly declining populations and made headway in the methodology of headstarting this beautiful and fragile species.

Staff Spotlight

Our own Ed Matheson (actually Richard E. Matheson, but no one knows that name) in Fisheries Independent Monitoring took the time to give us a glimpse into his illustrious past this week, so let’s dive in:

What are your degrees? 

B.S. and M.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1975 and 1979, respectively; PhD from Texas A&M University in 1983.

What has your professional experience been like? 

I have been at the Institute since 1987, but before that time I had postdoctoral fellowships at Harbor Branch Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida, and at Rutgers University in Tuckerton, New Jersey. At various times during my tenure at FWRI, I have lectured in some classes at USF and been an adjunct at USF, UF, and UCF for the purpose of serving on graduate student committees. My work at FWRI began with supervising a four-year study of the Little Manatee River (in the Fish Biology Section). Later on, I moved to the Fisheries-Independent Monitoring Program (FIM), where I have been ever since.

A red-winged blackbird, as photographed by Ed.

What are you working on now?

Most of my time is spent assisting the various FIM field labs with fish identification and improving the identification keys that we have for various families of fishes. I also write or co-write various manuscripts and edit other manuscripts for FWRI staff. In addition, I often assist with fish identification for the public when information requests are sent to the lab.

How is this information beneficial?

Accurate information on the distribution and abundance of fishes in Florida is necessary for informed fishery and ecosystem management. This is obviously true for fishes of direct economic value, but it is also true for non-harvested species who are predators, competitors, and prey for the harvested species. Information on the latter species becomes even more important as we develop more ecosystem-level management strategies.

What is your typical work day like?

My work days vary a lot, but I spend considerable amounts of time identifying fish for the FIM program, assisting FIM personnel in fish identification, and compiling information useful for the identification of Florida species. Other frequently recurring activities include writing and editing manuscripts and identifying fish for the public. The latter activity is obviously an important part of our outreach efforts, but it has also produced some interesting fish records. Most photos from the public are common species, but every now and then we get something really rare, such as the jellynose fish (we’re up to three specimens now of this rare deep sea fish).

A periodical cicada. photographed by Ed.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

Other than surviving this long, I suppose it would be developing expertise on the identification, distribution, and abundance of Florida fishes, including juvenile stages. By training FIM staff in fish identification and producing materials (e.g., identification keys) useful for identification of Florida fishes, I hope I have made some contribution to the excellent reputation of the FIM program for producing high quality, accurate data. There are about 1,200 species in what I would call the FWRI universe: Florida waters from freshwater to the edge of the continental shelf. Nobody arrives at FWRI with knowledge of this entire fauna; it has to be obtained over years of hands-on experience and study, and I still learn something new almost every day.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

In fish identification it is developing methods for identifying poorly known species. This is especially true for offshore species; species groups containing multiple, closely related species which are difficult to separate; and for juveniles of various species.

What do you like most about your career?

Assisting FIM staff, other FWRI staff, and the public with fish identification, and watching young staff members develop their skills in this area.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?

Working on something involving water was always my main interest. From fishing and keeping aquaria as a kid to studying biology in college, this never changed. I could have studied aquatic insects at one point (sorry fish people, but these may be the coolest animals on the planet and very few people know anything about them), but ichthyology was a much better career choice.

A wood stork, photographed by Ed.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?

Probably still something involving the natural world. Park Ranger? Nature photographer? Also, I love old movies, so perhaps I would be involved in the film industry. Nature documentaries?

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Only do it out of love for the work. If you get into this field for the money, you are not thinking very clearly. Most of us make enough money to pay our bills, but there’s not much room for error. But, if you really love the work, by all means become a marine biologist. If you love it enough, it’s not really like having a job.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I do a lot of nature photography. I am by no means an expert, and I insist on using an outdated camera that I have been using for years. Nevertheless, I still come up with some good shots. As I mentioned above, I also love old movies, TCM channel is great.

 

 

 

Communications Corner

In lieu of new research into bonefish or manatees or trichodesmium, I was given the opportunity to introduce myself in this quarter’s Communication Corner. In an effort to keep things comfortable and concise I’ll be interviewing myself:

What’s your name and position?

My name is Jonathan Veach, although I go by Jonny, and work in the Communications Department as an Information Specialist.

What do you like to do? 

My favorite hobbies are hiking, backpacking and paddling. An ideal Saturday is grabbing a lox bagel from St. Pete Bagel Company, heading over to Weedon Island, hiking the trails, and paddling the mangrove trails in my canoe. I’m looking forward to finding some time to make it down to the Everglades for an overnight paddling trip. Best backpacking trip I’ve done was a week-long trek around Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. I love cooking and gardening, and started getting into orchids after moving to Florida.

Where are you from?

I’m originally from downstate Illinois. Before I moved to Florida I lived in Mississippi for four years where I attended grad school at the University of Mississippi for an MFA in Creative Writing.

Any pets?

Two cats: Ouija and Luna

Who do you admire most and why?

Probably John Muir. The relentless energy he put towards preserving natural lands makes him larger than life, the ecstatic holy-man of the mountains. I love the (probably fictional) story of Muir getting picked up by a cab in San Francisco on arriving in the city for the first time, “Where do you want to go?” the cab driver asked, “Anywhere that’s wild,” was Muir’s response. Even though Muir’s writing is infused with the divine, he never loses a wry sense of humor: “The world, we are told, was made especially for man — a presumption not supported by all the facts.”

Director Message

In Defense of Boaty McBoatface

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

In 2016 Britain’s National Environmental Research Council (NERC) decided to hold a public naming contest for its new $300 million polar research vessel. The NERC is an organization established by Royal Charter to coordinate environmental and earth sciences research and the new ship, due to its dedicated scientific mission, would be given the prefix RRS (Royal Research Ship). In its press release announcing the online poll, the NERC suggested a few names that might be appropriate for the new state-of-the-art research vessel including Shackleton, Endeavor and Falcon. When the online poll closed after one month there was a runaway winner with over 124,000 votes: RRS Boaty McBoatface. Boaty had gathered more than four times as many votes as the second-place finisher. Other top vote getters included: RRS It’s Bloody Cold Out Here and RRS Clifford the Big Red Boat (mock- ups of the ship had been shown with a red hull). In the end, the NERC chose none of these, opting for the more respectable RRS Sir David Attenborough.  As a concession to democracy, NERC did name one of its autonomous underwater vehicles Boaty McBoatface (perhaps Subby McSubface was taken?). So, when it came to science, the cultural powerhouse that has given us The Ministry of Silly Walks, Mr. Bean, Benny Hill and the lumberjack song was incongruously averse to informality.

It is clear from this case that humor (or is it humour?) with the express purpose of mocking stodgy government science was a galvanizing force that made millions of folks aware of NERC and its polar research program who would have otherwise not have engaged at all. I suspect that many folks also relished the chance to rail against the formality of science, especially in the United Kingdom, home of the world’s oldest national scientific institution:  the Royal Society (founded 1660). In the Royal Society’s early years, science was the exclusive purview of the monied elite and absent support from the monarchy it admitted more wealthy non-scientists than scientists just to pay the bills. By 1800 seven out of ten members were wealthy non-scientists. So, in the UK there is plenty of scientific mocking material.

In response to the naming contest gone awry, the UK Parliament formed an inquiry into the issue and the state of scientific communication in general (if you are interested you can watch it here: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/science-and-technology-committee/news-parliament-2015/science-communication-evidence1-15-16/).  One of the more stunning statistics from the inquiry is the reach that twitter hashtags associated with the naming contest had.  The hashtag #nameourship reached 23 million twitter users while the hashtag #boatymcboatface reached an astonishing 214 million twitter users.  These numbers are even more impressive when considering that the total number of monthly twitter users at the time was just over 300 million.

What are we to make of the rebuffed RRS Boaty McBoatface?  People like to have fun and humor has a way of engaging people regardless of background, culture, or worldview. Many of the most successful marketing programs use humor to engage customers.  Science, more than any other discipline except perhaps accounting and certain highly invasive medical specialties, is notoriously inaccessible and largely humor-free. Over 22 years of holding our MarineQuest annual open house at FWRI Headquarters in St. Petersburg we have learned that humor is by far the best way to engage kids and get them interested in science. Over the years, the number of silly costumes, funny stories, interactive games and generally goofy unfettered FWC staff has grown and reached thousands of kids who would not have sat still for a five-minute scientific PowerPoint. While I am sure the RRS Attenborough has a dedicated following, think of the millions of kids around the world who would want to follow the adventures and scientific exploits of the RRS Boaty McBoatface.

To many, science is still viewed as a distant, inaccessible discipline. But science is no different than any other human endeavor, fraught with failure, intrigue, personal biases, rivalries, and believe it or not -humor. As scientists working in public service, it is part our job to figure out the best way to connect people with science. Humor is a good place to start. If you remain unconvinced, consider the name of one of the world’s most popular tagged humpback whales: Mr. Splashy Pants.