Despite windy weather, we had an amazing three weeks working on the Florida Keys Shark Ecosystem Project with the University of Miami's Shark Research and Conservation Program! The student participants and the interns and staff from UMSRC were fantastic, and made the most of our data collection opportunities in Dry Tortugas National Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, sampling 78 sharks across more than 10 species. We saw some amazing sharks this week, including this blacktip which was fitted with a satellite tag before release. We can't wait for future work on this project!
Our team is super excited to be spending three weeks in Dry Tortugas National Park partnering with the University of Miami's Shark Research and Conservation Program on their Summer Research Expeditions! UMSRC team members and a group of amazing students are living and working aboard the RV Garvin right now studying the ecology and ecosystem effects of the ocean's top predators in this remote national park. We are at the halfway mark now and the teams have collected data on more than 40 sharks of 9 different species! Here the team works up a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) before releasing it in excellent condition!
During our recent fieldwork in Dry Tortugas National Park, our staff encountered some Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) hanging out near Garvin.
Goliath Grouper are the largest grouper species in the Atlantic, growing up to eight feet long and weighing as much as 800 lbs. They occupy relatively small home ranges, and can be territorial, particularly of preferred refuges like wrecks or caves--an irritated Goliath Grouper can contract its swim bladder to create a distinctive rumbling sound.
Like many grouper species, Goliath Grouper are what are called "aggregation spawners"--sexually mature individuals gather in large groups (100+ individuals) to reproduce each year. This makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing during these aggregations, when a large percentage of adult individuals may gather in just a few locations. They used to be so overfished in South Florida that they were considered for listing under the US Endangered Species Act, and harvest of these incredible fish has been prohibited in US Federal waters since 1990.
New evidence from a paper by researchers at Florida State University shows that loggerhead sea turtles may face yet another impact from plastic pollution: the incorporation of microplastics into the sand they use to construct their nests. In a survey of the 10 most important loggerhead nesting sites on the Gulf Coast of Florida, microplastics were found at every location. Sea turtles have what's called "temperature-dependent sex determination," which means the sex of hatchlings is determined by the temperature they are incubated at. Basically, at warmer temperatures, more (or all) of the hatchlings are female. Because tiny plastic particles retain heat better than grains of sand, shifts towards beaches with higher concentrations of microplastics are a potentially serious concern for the future health of loggerhead populations. Scientists have known for a long time (see this paper, or this one, or this one) that changes in beach temperature would impact sea turtle sex ratios, but we're just starting to reckon with the realization that the addition of plastics to sand may exacerbate these effects.
Yet another reason to get involved with the work of organizations working to remove trash from the marine environment, like our friends at Debris Free Oceans, and to avoid single-use plastics!
We are delighted to announce that the winner of our 2018 Summer Scholarship writing competition is UC Santa Barbara student Anshika Bagla!
While at UCSB, Anshika has gotten the chance to take courses in marine science and to have some pretty cool lab and field experiences, including working with ROV's in the Gulf of California, collecting temperate-water invertebrates as a scientific diver, and helping with lab work studying tropical fishes and corals. She's planning to go on for a MS degree in environmental science or marine biology, and ultimately plans to pursue a career working as a conservation biologist. Her experience, hard work, and passion for marine science impressed us so much that we couldn't pass up the opportunity to have her out with us this summer! We also had several awesome honorable mention students who received partial scholarships for our courses, and we're hugely looking forward to meeting them all in June!
Miss out this time? Our second elasmobranch course (June 25-July 1) still has a few spaces remaining, so please reach out if you're interested in joining us!
Field School is very excited to report that instructor Danielle Quinn will be returning to Garvin September 1-3, 2018, for a repeat of her immersive three-day workshop teaching R programming and ecological modeling techniques. No experience is necessary to participate, though the workshop is appropriate for both beginner and intermediate users of R, and students are encouraged to bring their own data sets to work with. For more information on the modules covered in the course, or to register, go to the course page here.
Our team was in Dry Tortugas National Park this week as a support vessel for elasmboranch researchers from Florida International University. Dr. Mark Bond, the principal investigator, uses baited underwater remote video (BRUVs) to study the effectiveness of marine reserves in conserving sharks and rays.
Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of ocean and a tiny group of seven islands 68 miles west of Key West, in the Gulf of Mexico. These islands (called "dry" because they have no surface water, and "tortugas" because Ponce de León saw a lot of sea turtles when he became the first European to visit them in 1513) represent less than 1% of the park's total area--it's mostly water. Garden Key, the administrative center for DTNP, also contains the largest brick masonry structure in the western hemisphere--historic Fort Jefferson. While we had a great time seeing the sights, the real attraction for most visitors is the amazing variety of marine and bird life that calls the park home.
The Field School team just returned from a successful expedition to Abaco with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization. Despite windier than expected weather, we spent several days tracking sperm whales, including an overnight track! We were also able to retrieve and download data from the two underwater arrays we set with BMMRO during our November expedition (despite some challenging diving conditions). During the search for the western array, we were weathered in for two days at Great Harbour Cay in the Berry Islands, where Field School staff and participants had an amazing time exploring the island, including the beaches. We also went looking for (and found) a previously tagged manatee taking advantage of freshwater being released in the marina. On the final day, we encountered and collected data on an enormous pod of melon-headed whales (estimated to contain more than 100 individuals). It was the perfect way to end an incredible trip! Our thanks to the amazing BMMRO and our awesome participants for making even the roughest day spent at sea a ton of fun!
On the last day of our sperm whale expedition, Field School and Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization were lucky enough to encounter a pod of over 100 melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra). These amazing animals, which despite their common name are part of family delphinidae—oceanic dolphins—are rarely seen by humans because they rely on deep water habitats. When they aren’t diving down to 500 m (1600+ feet!) looking for food, melon-headed whales spend a lot of the time resting on the surface in small social groups. Encountering this pod was the perfect way to wrap up our expedition!
During our recent expedition to the Bahamas, our team stopped over in Bimini, where we came across this amazing Caribbean reef octopus (Octopus briareus) doing some nighttime hunting. In the video you’ll see the octopus changing color using amazing specialized skin cells known as chromatophores, and expanding its tentacles into a “skirt” to trap small fish and invertebrates so it can eat them. These octopuses are cryptic (hard to see and find) and hunt mostly at night, so it was a rare treat for us to get to see it in action!
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