It has been three months since I started this journey towards my PhD. There are still two months remaining until I officially start at the university. These past few months have been some of the best of my life. One of the most incredible experiences I have had so far has been attending the Mangrove & Macrobenthos Meeting (MMM4). Why after traveling to so many beautiful locations and seeing incredible wildlife that I’ve been dreaming about seeing since a child would a meeting be a highlight? Glad you asked. The MMM4 was a portal to this new world I am becoming a part of. I have always loved and admired mangroves and found them to be extremely fascinating. I have even worked in mangrove systems before but then the focus was on the fish in the mangroves rather than the mangroves themselves. The MMM series are international conferences which occur only once every 4-6 years and focus on understanding and conserving or sustainably utilizing mangrove ecosystems across the globe. The first MMM to be held was in 2000 in Kenya, then it was six more years before MMM2 in Australia, and MMM3 took place in 2012 in Sri Lanka. For the first time this meeting was held in the U.S. and I got to attend. Not only that, but many of the people I had been reading papers by were at the meeting. This was the “who’s who” of mangroves. It was also a great opportunity to meet many of the people I will be working with over the next 5 years and form new connections to build my mangrove network. I was shocked by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I would sit by someone at the beginning of the day and during the breaks we would start talking, by lunch they would be introducing me to people who could be vital to my research, and by dinner I was making arrangements to go into the field with some of these new connections and getting recommendations of field sites that meet the criteria I’m looking for. Then the following day it started all over. By the end of the week, an auditorium of strangers was transformed into a room of friends and family.
I was glad I brought my laptop to the meeting because each presentation sparked a new idea and I wouldn’t have been able to write fast enough to jot down the important discoveries and future directions without my computer. The presentations varied in topic from genetics, biodiversity, and biocomplexity to ecology, habitat distribution and connectivity, to macrobenthos and marine community interactions, and stable isotope analyses of mangrove forest food webs to microbiome dynamics, ecogeomorphology, ecophysiology, and biogeochemistry to climate change and carbon storage. Even the species of mangrove people were working with drastically differed. Despite the MMM series sounding like a very specific conference, you have to keep in mind that mangroves, as we know them today, occur worldwide in the tropics and subtropics and are found in over 118 countries. The total number of true mangrove species is debated and varies between 54-73 in 20 different genera then there are even more mangrove associates which adds another 86 species from 73 genera. Then this meeting includes every topic relating to any of these species. Even though we had a room full of experts, each had their own niche and language to translate to the rest of us. One of the most surprising presentations to me was by NASA. Yes, the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), you know those people who launch rockets into orbit and take satellite photographs of distant galaxies. Well those same people who brought us the Mars rover are using airborne LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and Radar data to create high-resolution 3-dimensional maps of mangrove forests. I was familiar with radar before because we used doppler radar when I studied bats but LIDAR was new to me. How LIDAR works is it sends light pulses from a laser (ooh science) to Earth from some airborne vessel like an airplane or helicopter. Then a sensor records the reflected light combined with position and orientation data obtained from a specialized GPS receiver so you end up with latitude, longitude, and height data. Point by point you start to develop a picture known as a point cloud. These data can be used to not only study the forest structure and aboveground biomass but also to estimate the amount of carbon mangrove forests can store. Carbon captured by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems is known as blue carbon so carbon stored by mangroves is part of this blue carbon. It is important to understand the role mangroves play in carbon sequestration because mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics and deforestation of mangroves generates 10% of the global emissions per year despite accounting for only 0.7% of the tropical forests.
As scientists, the organizers of MMM4 realized that there is a saturation point at which no more knowledge can be absorbed, regardless of how pertinent or fascinating the subject, when you have a week-long meeting. Their solution was to get us all outside and into the field together. In the middle of the week we were given an option of going on a mangrove and marsh restoration tour at North Peninsula State Park and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a kayak tour of the Whitney Marine Lab, or a boat tour of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Even though I was staying at the Whitney Marine Lab and knew the facility fairly well, I hadn’t gotten out on the kayak in the mangroves yet so I went with that option. It was a wonderful experience. We had professional guides who knew the local fauna meanwhile I’m kayaking with mangrove experts who kept paddling up to branches to get a good look at leaves, snails, propagules, etc. It wasn’t a day off from learning but the change of scenery renewed our energy and allowed us to return to the conference refreshed and eager to continue learning. The conference itself was held at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. It was a beautiful campus with stunning Spanish architecture and just outside Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by the Spanish and has maintained its historical feel. It is unlike any other city I have visited in the U.S.
As I leave Florida to continue my adventure, my mind swirls with ideas and happy memories made over the past couple weeks here. It was both a pleasure and an honor to have had the opportunity to meet so many great minds. I am thankful to everyone who helped make my visit possible. The future looks bright and I am excited to return after my first semester at McGill.
May and June, I was in Panama getting familiar with the mangroves and developing research ideas, now in July, I’ve found myself in Florida meeting my collaborators. After several emails back and forth and lots of chaos and confusion, I landed in Jacksonville, Florida to be greeted by one of Christine Angelini’s graduate students, Ada Bersoza. Although we had been planning this visit to Florida so I could meet Christine and Todd Osborne as well as get to know the University of Florida campus in Gainesville and the UF Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, I was meant to visit Florida so that I could meet Christine and Todd Osborne, get to know the University of Florida campus, and the UF Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine. Despite all of this, the final logistics were still fluid by the time I landed so until my layover, I didn’t know whether I was renting a car, getting picked up, or where in Florida I was going first. Ada ended up coming to the rescue and drove three hours to pick me up and bring me back to Gainesville with her. Not having housing in place yet, she then opened her home to me as well. Ada wasn’t expecting the extra body but quickly filled me in on her research that we would be collecting data on in the morning. After getting settled in, Ada started prepping for the field making sandwiches, creating data sheets, packing supplies, and writing out a to-do list for on campus that evening. Kimberly Prince, another one of Christine’s graduate students, came over to introduce herself and organize an evening for Christine’s lab to get together for dinner. On campus, Ada gave me a tour of the Engineering School before we went to Christine’s lab to pick up some supplies.
Ada stayed up late into the night working on her computer, entering data, checking her lists and making sure she wasn’t forgetting anything. I was impressed with Ada's dedication to her research and tenacity. Not being able to contribute to this part, I ended up going to bed knowing that we had to be up by 4 am to drive out to the Guana Tolomato Matanza National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR), which is 2 hours away, to be there by sunrise. At the GTMNERR, we met up with Mathew Monroe, a Florida state biologist, to go over the plan for the day. Both Matt and Ada had their own experiments to check on, but the tides dictated when we would work on the various projects. Matt captained the boat, and we started the day checking some barriers Ada had set up in hopes to recruit oyster spat (i.e., baby oysters) along the banks of the Matanza river. Ada had a quadrat made of PVC that she used to quantify recruitment over the barrier. The soil was extremely soft, so we had to use caution when jumping off the boat into the water and approaching the experiments. Our legs sunk in the muck up to our knees at most places and sometimes up to our waists. We are used to getting dirty, but you have to keep moving in areas like this or the water rushes in trapping your legs. It is difficult enough to move but even harder to get out with all your clothing. My muck boots were put to the limits as I played tug-of-war with the mud. Each step of determination ended with a splosh and was quickly followed by another.
The second half of the day, Ada and I joined Matt on the oyster reefs. Again, PVC quadrats were used but this time they were much larger and marked with string every 10 cm creating a grid. The PVC quadrats were placed on top of the oysters and the number of live oysters, dead oysters, and sediment were recorded per square. This was repeated several times in different areas across the reef. The idea of these surveys is to characterize the population structure of the oysters in northeast Florida. This particular project has several different agencies and universities working together to map oyster recruitment. Results from these surveys help managers decide what areas need more projection and which can be opened to harvesting. While we worked, dolphins circled around us, cocking their heads as if to ask us what we were doing. One of them came within a foot from us and stayed until we moved to the next site.
Covered in mud, we returned to the car to drive back to Gainesville only to return to GTMNERR the following day. Ada said she wished we had just stayed in St. Augustine but housing wasn’t available at the time. Our cheese sandwiches had been left in the truck and melted in the hot Florida sun, so we got to end the field day with grilled cheese sandwiches. Back at the lab, we gathered supplies. This time, it was wooden stakes that Ada is using for her shipworm study. Ada has four wood treatments that she is testing: pressure-treated wooden stakes, copper paint treated wooden stakes, wooden stakes covered in weather resistant tape, and wooden stakes covered in silicone. She is comparing the damage caused by shipworms on these treatments to that of untreated wooden stakes. The next morning was another early one. This time, we brought wooden planks to navigate across the mud in the saltmarsh. Ada had ladders set up in tidal creeks of the Matanzas River constructed of branches from different trees. With these ladders, she is trying to determine how different tree species (i.e., laurel oak, sweetgum, crepe myrtle, and black mangrove) respond to shipworm infestations and how the prevalence of shipworms differs with distance from the sediment. Ada is placing her wooden stakes between the ladders since the shipworms will already be attracted to the ladders, so she can see which treatments work the best to extend the life of the wood. I really enjoyed seeing the variety of work going on in the saltmarsh, but I was most excited when we found the mangroves encroaching on the saltmarsh. In northern Florida, mangroves are typically viewed more negatively than they are further south. The reason for this is that the mangroves are expanding towards the poles with the changing climate. This, in itself, is not a bad thing but saltmarshes are vital ecosystems in Florida, and now, the mangroves are competing for the same area. Mangroves completely alter the habitat and food webs in these systems.
Knowing that part of my PhD research will be conducted in Florida, seeing the mangrove-saltmarsh interactions got the ideas flowing. The connection of the research I could conduct in north Florida to that in Bocas del Toro, Panama was not so clear. Bocas del Toro is primarily red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) meanwhile in north Florida, the dominate mangrove species is black mangrove (Avicennia germinans). In Bocas del Toro, the red mangroves are so numerous that they form entire islands large enough that people live on them. In north Florida, the red mangroves are isolated and the size of small shrubs. Galeta, Panama was primarily black mangrove so I could potentially use it as a comparison site to north Florida, but Galeta doesn’t have saltmarsh. Both north Florida and Galeta have muddy water with no visibility underwater compared to Bocas del Toro’s crystal clear water. I have a lot to contemplate but thankful to have these experiences to learn the systems better instead of trying to formulate experiments in Canada with only literature to inform my ideas.
Before heading to St. Augustine to live at the Whitney Marine Lab, Christine met up with Ada, myself, and Kimberly over dinner to discuss the future of the lab, research, and collaboration. I really enjoyed how Christine’s lab acts like a family and all of the lab members are extremely supportive of each other. Each graduate student in Christine’s lab has a very different project that equally demonstrate ingenuity and a deep understanding of the system they are working in. I found all the personalities of the lab members to be positive and compatible with my own which is extremely important when working together in the field under stressful conditions. I left Gainesville looking forward to the next time I return.
After starting my journey to St. Augustine to meet Todd and spend some time at the Whitney Marine Lab, I was surprised to find out that the Whitney is not actually in St. Augustine. It is actually in Marineland, Florida, a town in Flagler and St. Johns counties. The town is only 0.27 square miles and had a population of 16 people in 2010 across three households. I thought Todd was joking when he told me my neighbor in the research dorm was the mayor. Sure enough, the mayor was a young scientist that lived at the station. She told me of the history of Marineland and the Whitney while we got groceries for the next couple weeks.
The Whitney is a beautiful marine lab. I was impressed by the versatility of the facilities. A wet lab was transformed before my eyes to meet the needs of an incoming researcher. A large new building filled with classrooms and an auditorium provides the marine lab with a wonderful venue for their public lecture series, summer camps, and science education programs. The Whitney also has a sea turtle hospital where they rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtle as well as research some of the issues facing these turtles. One of the largest ongoing investigations at the sea turtle hospital is understanding the etiology of the Fibropapilloma virus (FP) which has been spreading around the world. FP presents in turtles as lesions, but it is much more than cosmetic. The virus alters the turtle’s feeding and breeding, leading to reduction in the already declining turtle populations. The sea turtle hospital has a major focus of educating and involving the community. By teaching the community about sea turtles and why they need our help, we can reduce sea turtle losses. Many sea turtles get lost heading to the ocean because they follow the moon but many beach establishments have lights that confuse the turtles, and they go the wrong way. Hatchlings (i.e., baby sea turtles) only have three days from when they emerge from the sand to make it to the sargassum (i.e., seaweed) floating in the ocean. They need the sargassum to hide in and feed. If they don’t make it in three days, they will starve. When people know this, they tend to be more careful about bright lights near the nesting beaches. Even just knowing the sea turtle hospital exists can save turtles because more people report injured turtles. I spent hours watching the recovering turtle feed. The laboratories at the Whitney were fully stocked with equipment I had never used before and shelves filled with books I had never read. As I waited for Todd to finish a meeting with a graduate student so he could introduce me to his team and explain what I would be doing the next couple weeks, I started furiously jotting down names of books and authors to look up in my notepad. Todd found me doing this and told me I was welcome to borrow any book during my visit. Since it was the end of the work day and everyone was getting ready to go home, after meeting Trent Dye, Todd’s lab manager, and Tracey Schafer, one of Todd’s graduate students, I grabbed a stack of books and headed back to my room. The words from these books came to life and led me on a journey from microbial black boxes to biogeochemical cycles such as soil oxidation-reduction of wetlands and alterations of nutrient cycles. Before I knew it, the sun was setting. I grabbed a fresh mango, walked to the dock, and sat down beneath a mangrove tree to watch the sunset in the estuary. The juice dripped down my hand and small crabs began to emerge from their burrows. Ideas swirled in my head as the horizon glowed bright amber before the sun ducked behind the mangroves.
Today, I went out with Trent and Tracy to collect water samples from the saltmarsh. Todd’s lab had deployed pore water sippers which is basically a tray of water membranes that are inserted into the sediment at the desired depth and then removed. They work through osmosis to collect data on the water in the soil without contamination from the sediment itself. We used a syringe to extract the pore water from the sipper. Pore water can provide data on pH, salinity, alkalinity, sulfides, sulfate, chloride, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, ferrous and ferric iron, ammonium, and nitrate concentrations. The ones that we collected were in traditional saltmarsh surrounded by grasses, in transition zones where mangroves were growing in the grass, and in areas with only mangroves. We came from the land instead of the water so there wasn’t as much sinking in the mud as there was with Ada’s research. I really enjoyed learning about wetland biogeochemistry from Todd and was excited that my skills using a syringe to collect blood from animals could go to good use working with soil and plants in wetlands. Later this week, I will be joining Tracy and Trent in surveying more oysters and seeing what other projects they are working on. I am happy to spend so much time in the field and then relax in the evenings with my stack of books. I am looking forward to this collaboration and what will come from it.