From the Field: Oyster Parasites Through a Microscope

Posted by KristenM on June 13th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Microscopic cysts inside a Crassostrea virginica oyster. (Katrina Lohan)

Microscopic cysts inside a Crassostrea virginica oyster. (Katrina Lohan)

In addition to taking oyster tissue to test for the presence of protistan parasites, we are also analyzing the oyster tissue for larger, but still microscopic, parasitic species such as worms, trematodes, and copepods. We have found parasites in all the species examined in all the locations we have traveled, but I got the best pictures of critters observed in oysters in Florida!

The highest prevalence and density of parasites occurred in Crassostrea virginica oysters. So far, I have seen copepods, turbellarians (probably Urostoma sp.), pea crabs, gill parasites, and cysts (probably from cestodes). I even saw what looked like a fish embryo, which was probably just brought into the gills, and an insect larva. Seeing all these critters under the microscope has made me contemplate why oysters are considered an aphrodisiac!

 

From the Field: Sea Wall Scraping

Posted by KristenM on June 12th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Sea wall coated with oysters at South Bridge Marina. (Kristina Hill)

Sea wall coated with oysters at South Bridge Marina. (Kristina Hill)

Our second sampling location was a sea wall adjacent to a marina just below the south bridge in Ft. Pierce. The water was shallow enough along the wall that we were able to get out of the boat and stand in front of the wall, which made hammering and scraping the oysters off of it much easier!

Just as before, finding enough Crassostrea virginica oysters was easy, but finding the other oysters…took a lot more scraping. The Isognomon sp. at this location were fairly small and tucked into the crevices created by C. virginica, so they could be harder to spot. I took a step-wise approach, collecting the easiest species first, then making sure I had enough Isognomon sp., and only then did I move on and attempt to locate Ostrea sp., which easily took up the majority of our time. Most of the individuals in this species were dime-sized or smaller, tucked into the crevices or even in the dead shells of other oyster species, and they were covered in turf algae and mud. It took me (and the others) about an hour to find a sufficient number of these little guys at each of our respective sampling sites along the wall.

The funniest part of sampling along this wall was that there were lots of people around who did not hesitate to yell out! I am grateful to the multiple individuals who were concerned for our safety and mentioned the pilings in the water near the wall. (The water was clear enough to see them and we walked very slowly. Also, we all wore hard-bottomed water shoes and thick gloves.) We also had multiple boaters that were traveling in and out of the marina ask what we were doing, though I think some of them probably thought that we were just there to clean off the seawall!

Once all the oysters were collected, I took one water and one subtidal sediment sample and put them on ice. Then it was back to the lab to process more oysters.

 

From the Field: Dolphins!

Posted by KristenM on June 4th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

 A dolphin surfaces in Indian River Lagoon, Fla. (Kristina Hill)

A dolphin surfaces in Indian River Lagoon, Fla. (Kristina Hill)

We soon learned that it is mating season for dolphins and they frequently visit the Indian River Lagoon. On our boat trips to sampling locations, we have seen dolphins twice, and both times they were engaging in courtship behaviors. They are such graceful creatures.

I have to admit that I really, really want to see a manatee, another commonly spotted marine mammal in the lagoon. I haven’t spotted one yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

More on dolphin courtship >>

View manatee spotted in Florida mangroves >>

 

From the Field: Biofilms and Sediments

Posted by KristenM on June 3rd, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Kristy Hill uses cable ties to secure  a "biofilm collector" (a.k.a. microscope slides in a container) to a cage suspended from a local dock. (Katrina Lohan)

Kristy Hill uses cable ties to secure a “biofilm collector” (a.k.a. microscope slides in a container) to a cage suspended from a local dock. (Katrina Lohan)

As you may recall from a previous blog, part of the research for my fellowship project involves using genetic tools to look for parasites outside of their host organism in order to increase our understanding of the general ecology of these parasites.

I have been collecting water samples at all of the oyster sampling locations, but I decided that I wanted a larger diversity of habitat types. Thus, after discussing this idea with my advisors, I have decided to also sample subtidal marine sediments at the oyster sampling locations and collect biofilm samples. I will use the same genetic techniques on all the sample types to examine the diversity and distribution of marine parasites associated with the different habitats.

To collect the biofilm samples, we are using microscope slides, which were secured into a slide holder and suspended off of a local dock. The plan is to them scrape the biofilm off the microscope slides at scheduled intervals during our trip. I can’t wait to see what’s growing on them in a few days!

Read more on parasites surviving in disease reservoirs >>

 

From the Field: Parasite Hunting in Florida

Posted by KristenM on May 31st, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Jack's Island oyster reef in Indian River Lagoon, Fla. (Katrina Lohan)

Jack’s Island oyster reef in Indian River Lagoon, Fla. (Katrina Lohan)

For our next parasite hunting adventure, Kristy and I will be spending two weeks on Florida’s Atlantic Coast at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce. The marine station is located on a beautiful lagoon. We arrived on Monday and got a warm welcome from the staff, a thorough tour of the facilities and unpacked all of our gear, all four boxes of it. (No, we don’t travel light!) While here, we are staying on campus at the Taylor house, which is a residence for visiting scientists complete with kitchen, full bathroom, and a beautiful wrap-around porch that faces the water. We have long days and nights on these field trips, so it’s nice to have close accommodations that allow us to easily get back and forth to the lab, along with a full kitchen so we can cook quick and easy meals before returning to processing oysters. So far, I’m impressed!

On Tuesday, we headed out to our first field location. We hopped in a small boat owned by the Smithsonian and went to Jack’s Island, an oyster reef surrounded by mangrove trees. We were able to easily find Crassostrea virginica, as it is the species that makes up the reef, and then had to spend a little more time searching for Isognomon sp. at each site to get the numbers we needed. Also, it’s virtually impossible to tell which oysters are Ostrea sp. without opening the shells, so hopefully we have enough of those….

We also had a new first at this site—this is the first time that we have had a tour boat pass us while we were collecting!

Read accounts of marine biologists hunting for oyster parasites in Panama >>

 

From the Field: Insects Behind the Mangrove Invasion

Posted by KristenM on May 30th, 2013

by Mayda Nathan

Many insects visit black mangrove flowers, including bumblebees (left) and Pseudomyrmex ants (right). But which pollinators are the most important? (Mayda Nathan)

Many insects visit black mangrove flowers, including bumblebees (left) and Pseudomyrmex ants (right). But which pollinators are the most important? (Mayda Nathan)

Introduced species have a bad—and sometimes well-earned—reputation. Brown tree snakes in Guam, mosquitoes in Hawaii, cheatgrass in the intermountain west, and many more invasive organisms have turned native ecosystems upside-down, changing fundamental ecosystem properties like species diversity, nutrient availability, and the size and shape of food webs. Biologists are hard at work learning how to tell when, where, and how a species becomes a successful invader and driver of ecosystem change. (See a recent post on how tricky this can be.)

But how can we make predictions about invaders that are…native?

In other words, what happens when an organism starts to spread out from its native range into adjacent territory—without hitchhiking along with humans? And why does this happen in the first place?

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America’s Endangered Orchids

Posted by KristenM on May 17th, 2013

North America is home to over 200 species of orchids. More than half are endangered or threatened somewhere in their territories. Some fall prey to poaching. Others fall to habitat loss. But much of their survival depends on something smaller: microscopic fungi in the soil. In the early–and sometimes later–stages of their lives, orchids depend on the symbiotic relationships they form with these fungi to obtain nutrients. If the soil is altered the fungi can disappear, and the orchids soon follow.

May 17 is Endangered Species Day. This year we’re highlighting some of the silent victims in the orchid gallery below.

Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii)
This ethereal leafless orchid haunts the swamps of Florida’s deep south, the only state where it can be found. It is a frequent target of poaching, and generally dies within a year of being taken out of the wild.
Status: Endangered in Florida.

Ghost orchid (NC Orchid)

Ghost orchid (NC Orchid)

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Invaders’ “Away-Field Advantage” Not as Strong as Once Thought

Posted by KristenM on May 16th, 2013

Brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) caused the local extinction of more than half of Guam's native birds and lizards after it invaded the island in the 1940s. (National Park Service)

Brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) caused the local extinction of more than half of Guam’s native birds and lizards after they invaded the island in the 1940s. (National Park Service)

by Kristen Minogue

For decades, ecologists have assumed the worst invasive species—such as brown tree snakes and kudzu—have an “away-field advantage.” They succeed because they do better in their new territories than they do at home. A new study led by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center reveals that this fundamental assumption is not nearly as common as people might think.

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Weddell Seals Have Most Adult-Like Brains of any Mammal at Birth

Posted by KristenM on May 2nd, 2013

by Kristen Minogue, Regina Eisert and Olav Oftedal

Because they must lean to navigate under sea ice in just over a month, baby Weddell seals are born with near adult-sized brains. (Samuel Blanc)

Because they must learn to navigate under sea ice in just over a month, baby Weddell seals are born with near adult-sized brains. (Samuel Blanc)

When it comes to brain size, Homo sapiens generally get the most credit. But to find the baby mammals with the proportionally largest brains on the planet, Smithsonian scientists had to search in Antarctica. In a study published online in April, they found Weddell seal pups have the most developed brains at birth recorded for any mammal so far.

By the time they are born, baby Weddell seal brains have already reached 70 percent of their adult size. (The brain of a human infant is a mere 25 percent of its adult size.) But the researchers found this rapid development carries a hefty price tag.

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Blue crabs decline–but recovery still on track

Posted by KristenM on April 30th, 2013

by Matt Ogburn and Tuck Hines

Photo: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Photo: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

To some following the blue crab recovery, the news earlier this month may have come as a shock. In 2012, the Chesapeake-wide Winter Dredge Survey estimated a record 764 million blue crabs in the Bay—the highest seen since 1991. Juvenile crab densities jumped to their highest levels ever. Then the 2013 survey released April 19 saw both those numbers drop.

Managers greeted the dwindling juvenile population with some depression. But those numbers may not matter as much, according to biologists Tuck Hines and Matt Ogburn of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Ecologists at SERC have been tracking blue crabs for more than 30 years, almost a decade before the winter dredge survey began. They’ve discovered the population that really needs watching is the spawning females. Here is what the numbers are telling us:

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