Depth of Field 8/19/17: From Mangrove to Coral – Exploring Key Largo

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!:

Depth of Field #6 – Cicada Days

The following picture is not overly well composed or striking. But it does represent a moment I found particularly exciting – my first cicada!

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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.

 

 

Depth of Field #5 – You’re All Eyespots

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While running to meeting on the University of Florida campus, I looked down and spied this creature on the edge of a concrete walkway. While about the size of one of our local palmetto bugs (a deceivingly quaint name Floridians have bestowed upon one of the local cockroach species), this large docile beetle was far less menacing. I was entranced by its eye spots, and by the discovery of yet another new species (I am a transplant down here and very much dig the constant appearance of novel little beasties).

Due to its unique appearance, it was easy to later discover this insect’s identity – the speckled eastern eyed click beetle, Alaus oculatus. Among its other common names is the eyed elater. Their larval form is known as a wire worm, and due to its carnivorous diet, is often valued by gardeners for its ability to rid vegetation of other less desirable residents.

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Click beetles are members of the family Elateridae and produce their trademark sound when their spine snaps into a groove located on their mesosternum (basically like a bug chest plate). They do this when righting themselves if flipped over, and this snapping action may allow many members of this family to propel themselves away from harm quickly. Additionally, the presence of eyespots in insects are often suggested to be a form of predator deterrence.

 

Depth of Field #4 – The Giving Tree

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Recently, I had the rare and exhilarating opportunity to spend part of an errant and lazy Wednesday afternoon at the beach.

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Anastasia State Park is a striking coastal stretch in the St. Augustine area. You walk a long, angled boardwalk right into these beautiful dunes. Wispy sea grasses dot the sand, and every time the wind blows, the blades cut these little furrows around themselves.

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I walked the length of the beach taking photos and was drawn to what seemed like a visually interesting tree. I took a couple angled shots and then noticed what I had originally mistook for some kind of buds on the tree were ornately woven adornments. Some unknown person or persons had up-righted what was a tree weathered and uprooted perhaps by some past storm, and decorated its branches with braids of sea grasses and shells. I watched as passersby casually searched for nearby elements to add.

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The most beautiful aspect of this experience for me was both the enigmatic and unknowable origin of the act, and the momentum it took on afterwards. Each person has an intimate connection with this surprising find, but every experience is singular along a continuum of time. Not a shabby way to spend time at the beach.

 

Depth of Field #3: She’s a Mysterious Kind of Ship

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

The Venezellos is propped up and displayed down a lonely side street in the Florida Panhandle town of Apalachicola. Online searches reveal little about its past lives, and it’s likely one would have to make a note to ask the local residents to find out much at all.

However, perhaps she has general significance of the fishing legacy Apalachicola and many other coastal Floridian towns share.

While the boat has never been completely repaired/restored, perhaps in order to retain original planking and materials, it’s clearly received a fresh coat or two of paint since 2011 when Grant Blakeney posted the following photo on his blog:

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A google search of the name “Venezellos” suggests a spelling correction of Venizelos which is characterized as a Greek surname, one that has been associated with several well known Greek politicians. This finding only seems to deepen the mystery and enigmatic nature of this remarkable nod to the past.

Depth of Field #2: The Sea Hare Emerges

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

The sun is starting to set on expanses of mirror-reflective tide pools speckling the beach of the Tawharanui Marine Reserve in New Zealand. I’ve been walking along staring into them at random in my search for anything novel when I chance across what is at best guess an example of Aplysia dactylomelathe variable sea or spotted hare.

In a surprising contrast to the small chitins, tunicates, and other finds, the sea hare was relatively large, measuring somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 inches in length. As seen in this additional photo, a smattering of spots can be seen along its body:

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

According to this source, sea hares are hermaphroditic though they do not practice self-fertilization. They may often form reproductive “chains”.

As suggested by one of their common names, they may be highly variable in appearance with their coloration primarily determined by the type of algae they feed on.

They release a purple dye as a mechanism to surprise and confuse predators. This particular characteristic was one I had once experienced first hand when handling my first sea hare in the mangroves of Key West. It certainly has a startling quality to it.

Variable sea hares tend to be more solitary, and nocturnal in nature. So perhaps no small amount of dumb luck governed this thrilling little chance encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aplysia dactylomela

Depth of Field #1: Coquina and the Palm Coast

“Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world” – Bruno Barbey

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So I’m one of those people who use facebook as an image repository – a sort of dusty social media shelf where I can look back and browse through digital photo albums filled with virtual Polaroids (I grieve the fact I never owned a Polaroid camera). However I recognize that the often interesting stories related to these images are buried relatively quickly.

This is the first entry into what I plan on making a regular feature (perhaps weakly-ish?). I will unearth what will generally be a nature or ecology-centric photo and jot down a few words about the context in which the photo was taken. If nothing else, I think this develops some nuance to my interest in cultivating a presence as a science communicator.

The first photo I’m featuring is taken very near where I work on my dissertation research. The shoreline is from Washington Oaks State Park in Palm Coast, Florida – a half hour or so south of St. Augustine. This was winter in Florida which is still punctuated by the vibrant green of algea growing on coquina rocks.

Coquina is a very marine phenomenon – the sedimentary rock consists primarily of Donax variabilis shell – the tiny little Coquina clam. Shells originating from other molluscs and invertebrates may join the mix. The rock was used for many of the Spanish Colonial structures – primarily forts – in the St. Augustine area.

One of the most notable and striking features of the Coquina are the circular depressions weathered through the rock. The shells that comprise the rock are largely composed of calcium, making Coquina a type of Limestone, which is relatively soft and easily shaped by the elements and other influences. A couple sources I’ve found suggest these holes are from Coquina forming around cabbage palms at one time. They certainly make for a visually arresting landscape.