I recently came across a post by Rachel David: “Science communication in unconventional forms – experiments in Found Poetry.” It reminded me of my poetry writing days in high school and college including undergraduate poetry courses that gave me insight into playing with style and form. Found poetry uses words and phrases from pre-written text to serve as a sort of amniotic fluid, helping to nourish the birth of something new. David gives insight into applying this process to scientific papers.
So, I am using this as both a jumping off point and permission to engage creatively with some of the papers I’ve found while helping to revise a scientific manuscript I submitted collaboratively with a team of researchers I completed some past research with. This first attempt keeps with the environmental focus of the paper I chose, and benefited greatly from the rich word choice in the writing:
State of the Game
Average citizens – visitors of A world in general, A world in particular. That world: A broadcast of wildlife, of botanical exhibitions, and beautiful aesthetic discovery.
Environmental context underpins a curiosity of rapid human endeavors, notorious behavioral intentions and byproducts of ideas. Some lead to growing ruin, a world polluted, an endangered future.
What are the catalysts, the vital ingredients to protect this authentic identity of nature, to construct new outcomes, to rethink moral orientations?
Are empathy, emotional involvement the salient keys to designing these better instruments? Of insight, Of action, Of change? What enduring free-choices will support our delicate natural heritage, So it will not just be What we attend to in our memory?
During the muggy glow of a recent South Carolinian thunderstorm, I saw the slender flitting body of a hummingbird and felt a tingling wave of elation. It was the proud culmination of what I thought was a futile effort to seduce local hummers into visiting my balcony.
My ramshackle setup has steadily grown over the months of quarantine. My feeders are shoddily tied to the railings of my balcony by shoelaces. My favorite and most visited is a wood platform feeder I fill with mixed seeds. It has the added amusement of showing only the bobbing heads of my smallest visitors when they are shuffling around and picking through the offerings.
During the pandemic, many of us continue to turn to activities that can nurture us. Each bird that I see visit keeps me tethered to the outdoors when I often don’t have the energy for meaningful engagement in nature. Their visits serve as a crystal bell stroke, a quick moment of meditation.
I’ve always been fascinated with birds but certain memories seem to have amplified that interest. Take for example, my aunt and uncle’s idealic spit of land on the Maine Coast. They would hang finch socks and I remember standing close by and just hearing the loud “whhhhiirrrr” of wings as finches flew by inches away from me. They also regularly put out hummingbird feeders, and were visited by scads of the little creatures. The visits often devolved into veritable wars however, as hummers are very territorial and squabble over available nectar stations.
Another important instance that stoked the fires was an ornithology class I took at the Isle of Shoals Marine Lab. The whole experience started with our instructors bringing us out to the rocky outcroppings of Appledore Island to census the population of screaming herring gulls protecting their nests of spotted babies. We watched colonies of common, roseate, and arctic terns. We learned that common eider females pool their offspring into large floating rafts of babies – called crèches – to better protect them. But my favorite memory was the bird banding station.
The station is a little building housed on a corner of Appledore Island which advantageously serves as a stopover for many birds during long seasonal migrations. Mist nests – designed with small pockets that safely entangle visiting birds – are strung up nearby. Station staff check the nets regularly. I remember watching them carefully remove birds and then gingerly place them in paper bags which they attached to a belt with clothespins. In the station, they would record various biographical information about each bird and attach delicate bands meant to help keep track of the birds longer term travels. My absolute favorite part of the process was weighing the birds. They would be unceremoniously placed in a weighing cone with beak sticking out of the pointy end, and little feet visible at the other to keep them safely immobilized on the scale. I had the occasional opportunity to release birds afterwards. I would carefully tip the cone over so the bird was sitting in my hand, and then wait for it to snap out of its momentary daze and fly off to continue its instinctually driven journey.
But even armed with unbridled enthusiasm, I’ve had little past luck at attracting birds to my backyard. I’ve tried at several houses over the course of time, and I remember my earnest effort at one in particular. At one of the multiple places I lived during the course of my PhD, we (I typically lived with 3-4 other people) had a wild backyard overgrown by greenery. Unexpected plants were always popping up during the year courtesy of either the house’s original owner or some former occupants. Banana trees and elephant ear plants thrived in the semi-tropical environment. We often had visiting wildlife including occasional Eastern cottontails. Understandably, I thought this would be my opportunity to successfully put out feeders.
In one instance, I attached a suet feeder to a tree and within a day or two it was gone. And I don’t mean just the suet was gone. The little green plastic coated wire cage that held it was gone. The chain that attached the cage to a tree limb was gone. I envisioned some sticky-fingered raccoon propped nearby, gorging itself on rendered fat and sunflower seeds. And, in a scenario familiar to many, squirrels made quick work of anything else I put out.
It’s only now, living in an apartment complex, set in a neighborhood with golf courses and exceedingly curated green spaces that I’ve been able to lure birds to my second-story balcony. The possibility struck me when a pair of noisy mockingbirds started landing on the railings and broadcasting their annoyance at sharing their space with me. It’s likely they had an established nest nearby. I experimentally put out some small piles of seed and noticed other varieties of birds start to come by. I’ve kept a list of who in particular I’ve seen since putting out feeders and so far the manifest after those initial mockingbirds includes grackles, brown thrashers, pairs of cardinals, mourning doves, house finches, tufted titmice, chickadees, a bluejay for a hot second, and my coveted hummingbirds.
One of my current delights is waiting for sightings of particular large nervous cardinal fledgling that broadcasts its presence with rapid stuttering chains of anxious chirps. If dad, complete with his bloom of red crest, isn’t lurking nearby, I generally can expect him soon after. The fledgling then seems to insist dad stuff his beak full of seeds even while within steps of the feeder. When I tell my sister about these sightings as she is propping up a bottle for her littlest, Otty, she nods in solidarity with the avian parent.
Tapping into this new world has let me start to make observations and understand the local birds better. Brown thrashers like to peck at the seed cakes I put out so violently they make the metal feeder ring out in protest. Chickadees are so much smaller than I remember – they are the pipsqueaks among the locals. My hummingbird sightings have so far coincided with overcast skies when the blistering air starts to cool. But during a time when the whole world seems to be on fire, the most gratifying benefit is the constant reminders to stop and find some stillness.
I’ve been busy dissertating and haven’t posted for a long time, but what better way to get back in the blog game than to talk about mobs of octopuses! And before you cringe about the pluralization of the word “octopus” check out grammerly’s page here, and the following video settling the debate once and for all (octopuses, octopi, and octopodes oh my!):
But before I digress too far, the cool bit of marine science-y news is that scientists have just spotted a huge amassment of octopuses watching over their eggs. These brooding cephlapods adopted an inverted protective posture with tentacles facing outward. This observation was made at the Davidson Sea Mount, which was subsumed into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2008. Interestingly, this is only the second time such an aggregation has been observed, but this recent discovery comes only a short time after work published about a smaller example of the phenomenon spotted in Costa Rica most likely involving the same genus.
The following video footage is of the sighting paired with background discussion from the scientists who were stoked about what they were witnessing:
I love these videos as they sometimes remind me of the scientist version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. That’s especially true of this amusing video of a gulper eel’s defensive behavior, also filmed during the same series of Nautilis expeditions responsible for the octopus footage:
Other interesting observations of octopus behavior have also been observed off the Monterey Bay area including an example of a deep sea octopus who brooded over her eggs for four years.
Our local art museum held a recent contest called Words on Canvas asking students to submit poetry or prose pieces inspired by certain works in their collection. I used to write poetry as an undergraduate regularly so this was an amazing chance to flex those muscles again and to really reside in the art pieces in an unusual way. I chose to write about Bertram Hartam’s painting City Blocks. The resulting poem is below:
The Place Where We Dwell
The wall-ridden people in the city, they stir,
Their thoughts brazen and free like birds,
Their souls full and mottled
like the high-rise walls,
The insides of their skulls a place for
the graffiti of being
Signs of experience and civilization,
like an oil slick in a harbor, an
oil slick of humanness, beauty and noise
Castoffs and culture, scraps and silver splinters,
rage of steel-laced angles and corners
The thump-thump rise, itch of internal amorphous beat,
The breath of socketed despair
The breath of burning struggle
Of punch-drunk ambition
The breath of disquiet
Of zoetic love
Of thick-skinned passion
All trying to swell, to climb, to rise to heaven in one heaving breath
In a divine line of view
The place where we dwell
So you thought the oysters went dormant? Never you fear, this busy grad student is here to update you.
The crowdfunding campaign we ran was successful and helped add $700 to my research budget! I have to sheepishly admit I didn’t as of yet get around to recording my oyster “ted talk” as a busy semester got the best of me, but with the help of my friend and collaberator, Natelle of Natelledrawsstuff.com, we sent out some very cool stickers and postcards.
Though it did come with some challenge, I’ve also been able to accrue a small collection of interviews and am starting to analyze my results. Here’s a little detail on both these aspects:
5-6 informal interviews to give me context while developing interview questions
11 formal interviews, one of which had 3 interviewees for a total of 13 participants
Some of these were with local fishermen and fishing guides, some were with commercial oystermen, and some were with other individuals who occasionally harvested oysters in a non-commercial setting.
So what happens next you ask? Now I start to pull out themes and central ideas I see occurring within my interview transcripts and notes. We call this kind of approach qualitative content analysis, and the process of identifying and categorizing themes is referred to as “coding”. I will develop a codebook starting with the ideas I might expect to see based on prior studies, not surprisingly referred to as “expected codes”, and add the concepts that emerge during closer analysis of the interviews or “emergent codes”. Transcripts will be examined several times in order to refine the codebook. I can then start to develop ideas about how these groups may differ or be similar in their perspectives on oysters in the regions.
I will be presenting some preliminary results at upcoming meetings and conferences, but full analysis may take a little time. I may also try to add another interview or two to round out the ideas I’m seeing and to make sure I’m capturing most of the key people within this community. Stay Tuned for additional updates as I get further into this process!
I listen to podcasts. Boy, do I ever listen to podcasts. I find these short-form bits of culture the perfect way to multitask, to learn something new while I exercise, drive, unwind from the day. All kinds of podcasts. Science podcasts, tech podcasts, storytelling podcasts. WNCY Studios, NPR, Gimlet Media. They’re the perfect length to invest in during a time in my life where succinct is king.
I’ve also noticed friends will ask for podcast suggestions. Peeps looking for roadtrip fodder will show up occasionally on my facebook feed. However, as an avid listener of the format, I know some episodes are occasionally better than others. I can sometimes recommend the entirety of a podcast series, or sometimes I need to make the age-old plea to stick with something because it “gets better as you go.”
So, it is with that in mind that I thought I would occasionally highlight the odd interesting series or perhaps isolated episode of podcasts that I frequent. There’s so much great content being created, so why not celebrate and share?
So without further delay, here’s suggestion numero uno:
36 Questions: The Podcast Musical is the perfect experimental take on short-form podcast serials. The website connects you to podcast feeds but also links directly to each of three episodes or just the music sans all the narrative bits inbetween.
Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton strike a balance create a modern interpretation of a musical by creating a lead female character who records her experience on her cell phone. The plot revolves around a woman who has kept parts of her identity and true self from her husband. With their marriage in shambles, she suggests they try asking one another a list of 36 questions. This list is a very real phenomenon that resulted from a this study and is meant to foster closeness between two people. The idea creates an interesting scaffold for character interaction and development.
Here’s hoping that we see more from Groff and Shelton in the future!
Last week I was able to get down to Key Largo for the American Water Resources Association (AWRA) Florida chapter annual meeting. Like any opportunistic biologist I always take the opportunity to look around.
The first place I went before even checking into my hotel room was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. One of my favorite things to do there is to snorkel around mangrove roots. People familiar with mangroves often know that they harbor a complex root system (especially red mangroves with buttressing roots) that protects and supports many species including juvenile fish. What surprised me on my first visit several years ago to the park, is how many different things live on the roots themselves. These epiphytes (“epi” meaning on, and “phyte” meaning plant) and epizoans (“zoans” refers to animals) are vibrant and diverse. The delicate little tendrils of minute anenomes are littered in among examples of solitary and colonial species of tunicates, little squishy organisms with in-current and ex-current siphons. Clusters of Isognomon alatus, the flat tree oyster, are visible. It’s an amazing brackish little universe.
While they may seem a little frenetic, I captured a couple videos as well. The first is a little tour of the mangrove roots I describe above:
And the next is of a small barracuda I followed for a moment or two:
I later moved my prospecting off shore a couple days later when I donned scuba gear with Rainbow Reef Dive Center. Besides the surprise siting of an interesting shark or notable sea creature, one of the appeals of diving down in the keys is the intricate landscape of benthic creatures including things like corals, sponges, and christmas tree worms.
And while I can always be kept busy watching the variety of oddly colored and shaped fish, the appearance of a rather large green moray eel doesn’t disappoint!:
Thanks in part to the generosity of donors to my crowdfunding campaign, I’ve started the process of listening to fishermen and oystermen in St. Augustine and nearby!
In order to capture different ideas and access multiple types of people, I am using a technique commonly called snowball sampling. Every time I interview someone, either formally or informally, I ask them who else I should be talking to. The idea is that eventually there will be enough overlap in the answers you’re getting that you know you are starting to capture the population you’re interested in. This approach is known to have some drawbacks in that it can be challenging to not talk exclusively to people who think similarly to one another. However, when your target populations are small, this method may be the most effective way of accessing them.
While not giving too much away, I’ll also say that I’m already noticing some common themes in the answers I’m hearing to my questions which is exciting. I’m learning interesting details about what fishermen and oystermen look for in reefs. One of the most enjoyable aspects however, is the extra details that are being shared, the personal history and anecdotes people are peppering in with their responses. The experience of local oyster roasts has been mentioned, with each telling rich in explanation about methods of cooking and cultural significance. Stories about growing up on the local waterways abound as well. This kind of research is affording me a chance to really root around and understand the complexity of ways these groups are identifying with this resource, and I’m excited to have the opportunity.
Keep an eye on my blog for continued updates on all things oyster!
The following picture is not overly well composed or striking. But it does represent a moment I found particularly exciting – my first cicada!
I’ve had the stray thought several times that it seemed unusual to always hear the constant summer whine of cicadas in Florida without ever seeing any. Finally, I spotted one!
It turns out IDing him is an altogether different task. According to the University of Florida’s entymology and nematology department, Florida supports 19 different species of cicada. They categorize species relative to their size as defined by the length of their forewings. The cicada picture above most squarely fits into the larger species. The coloring indicates what I saw was some species in the genus Tibicen (or Neotibicen according to this site). However, it turns out species in this genus can experience quite a bit of color variation.
This graph, also from the UF site might not entirely narrow things down either:
I took my cicada picture on July 28th, which according to the timing of different species in our county, could suggest five different Tibicen species. This summer appearance also gives this genus it’s more common name of dog-day cicadas in reference to the dog-days of summer. So short of some insight from someone more versed in than I am, he will ever after be referred to as Tibicen spp.
Another detail I found surprising is Florida has no periodical species of cicada, which refers to 13 and 17 year cicadas that emerge all at once in some regions of the country. Instead our summer denizens will be present every year.
To listen to some of our local cicada songs, visit the website here.
Full disclosure, I was once not the oyster devotee I am now. As a proper native New Englander and marine biologist, I of course was acquainted with them. But it wasn’t until I trekked across the eastern coast of the United States and wound my way down to start a PhD program at the University of Florida with molluscan biologist Shirley Baker, that I began to suspect there was something more salient about my study organism.
In the great assemblage of all the graduate students that ever were, many a person has chosen a dissertation topic out of convenience and as a means to an end. Things may have started out in a similar vein for my own research. Currently it seems oysters are a sexy topic, and ecosystem services – the benefits of nature that directly influence human wellbeing, an even sexier one. But as I began to work on my research I began to realize the uniqueness and gravity of Crassostrea virginica, the American Oyster.
Like most people with a glancing familiarity with oysters, I knew they were filter feeders, making them unknowing proponents of positive water quality in many an estuarine region. Under this premise, I started field research at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (which we call the GTM NERR for brevity’s sake) in the St. Augustine region of Florida to examine clearance rates of oysters within the system. So far I’m learning interesting lessons that I continue to explore. While the Nature Conservancy posts the following graphic about the filtration capacity of a single oyster, I’d like to provide the caveat that this indicates what an oyster could do, not necessarily what it does do:
Within the reserve, oyster clearance rates are often lower than lab studies might estimate. But this can often be attributed to the complexities of the natural environment and their influence on the biological processes of organisms. Oysters feeding rates can be influenced by qualities like temperature, salinity, and the nature of the particles in the water they are feeding on. Within the GTM NERR, we’ve also found evidence that tidal cycles may be hugely influential in how much time certain parts of reefs have available to feed.
But while I continue to reveal information on oyster filter feeding within the reserve, I had less initial insight about the full worth of the expansive reefs I was seeing. I did not know how much of a refuge oysters provide until I started to find the squidgy, pinchy little creatures while working on reefs. If you grab a cluster of oysters and rotate it in your hand, you’ll see the craggy irregular patches of barnacles interspersed with often minuscule ribbed mussels hanging on dearly by their byssal threads. Porcelain crabs will flatten themselves against shell in a desperate effort to avoid detection. While collecting oysters, you may also spot sea cucumbers and oyster toadfish while sheepshead and blue crab loiter nearby.
I also didn’t fully appreciate the bastion of strength reefs are against the storms that regularly visit Florida coastlines. It’s suggested oyster reefs have the ability to pace themselves with sea level rise, making them a common and ideal constituent of living shoreline designs which are meant to function as hardier and more effective alternatives to grey infrastructure historically used for shoreline armoring.
The title of my post then refers to the measure of what oysters can teach us about the sometimes unexpected ways we are tied to our environment. But if we attune ourselves to what oysters have to say about the health of our coastlines, we should also listen to one another about the values and concerns we imbue these natural resources with.
In St. Augustine, oysters also provide a source of harvest both directly for oystermen and for fishermen who recognize reefs’ ability to foster good fishing grounds. However, ability to access reefs and to harvest oysters depends on regulation especially in relation to water quality; oysters need to be gathered in locations where they are deemed safe enough to eat. Resource managers are often trying to balance providing positive harvest experiences with optimizing the other services oysters provide.
Information on how fishermen and oystermen currently use reefs, how they would like to use reefs, and how things have changed can then be crucial for the decision making process around managing oysters. We can try and gather those details indirectly or we can talk to these groups directly – a route I am currently tapping into. Through one-on-one interviews, people are telling their stories, revealing vital information about oyster use in the area, and teaching me about the fascinating culture and relevance of oysters within their coastal experiences. I hope study results will lead to more targeted management recommendations and provide opportunities for public outreach, education, and local engagement. Simultaneously, I am quickly learning to embrace my burgeoning love for human dimensions and social science research. All because of oysters. Who would have thought?
If this research interests you, especially my current study on the perception around and use of oyster reefs by oystermen and fishermen, consider donating to my crowdfunding campaign. My friend Natelle, of Natelle Draws Stuff, has designed these amazing postcards and stickers for those who would like some oyster swag: