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A Day in the Life of a Sea Turtle Biologist

29 Apr
Kristina Orrego is a  third-year journalism student at the University of Florida. Her interest in writing a feature story about a sea turtle biologist comes from having a passion and love for animals. Her career goal is to become a journalist at an online publication and write about important social issues and economics. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and cooking.

Kristina Orrego is a third-year journalism student at the University of Florida. Her interest in writing a feature story about a sea turtle biologist comes from having a passion and love for animals. Her career goal is to become a journalist at an online publication and write about important social issues and economics. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and cooking.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of contributing bloggers beginning their careers as journalists/public relations professionals at the University of Florida. Please see my earlier post about getting journalists excited about science writing early on.

By: Kristina Orrego

For Blair Witherington, the beach is more than just a place where you can lay out a blanket and soak up some sun. It is in his field where he has the privilege and opportunity to interact with the animals he considers the most fascinating.

Witherington, a researcher with over 24 years of experience as a sea turtle biologist, worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute since 1992. He recently accepted a new position as part of the faculty at the University of Florida, where he will be working for the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research.

This job will have him mostly stationed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, where he will be a part of the Kingdom’s conservation team continuing to research and do hands-on work with sea turtles.

His work as a researcher has allowed him to travel all over the world, participating in projects in the Atlantic Sea, the Florida Keys, the Sargasso Sea, located in the middle of the north Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico.

I recently caught up with Blair to learn more about his daily work as a sea turtle biologist and also what kind of advice he’d offer anyone who is thinking about entering this line of research.

Q. What is a regular day of work for you as a sea turtle biologist?

A. “A regular day isn’t always as exciting as one might think,” he said with a laugh. “A regular day is probably me sitting in front of the computer, trying to make sense of the data we’ve collected in the field. But every once in a while we have days in the field where we’re collecting that information and we’re out with the animals themselves. That’s always pretty exciting. But to tell you the truth, the times of discovery, when you’re really finding something out that is interesting to you or to anyone else… those are the times in front of the computer, as odd as it may seem. We go out into the field and we catch sea turtles in a lot of different ways and we see what they do, but it’s only after you sit down and try to make sense of the data that you really discover what’s going on, where you really find out how sea turtles live their lives, how many there are, and what their threats are.”

 Q. What are your favorite aspects of your job as a sea turtle biologist? What is the most rewarding thing about what you do?

A. “I enjoy discovery, as I was talking about. I certainly like going out in the field. It’s nice to, sort of, reinforce what you learn back in the lab and in front of the computer with what you see out in the real world with turtles. We test them in lots of different ways, and it’s kind of fun, really. It’s a challenge. We go offshore for 50 to 100 miles and catch young Yearling turtles out in the Sargasso out on the surface of the open sea. We also go to places like Florida Bay and catch much larger turtles. We catch them by hand… and these are 250-pound turtles. We follow them in boats and then jump into the water and grab them ‘and take them in for questioning’ so to speak. So that’s a challenge and interesting. I’d say probably my favorite part of the job is interpreting science for other people. I really like sharing stories about findings, sharing stories about sea turtles, because that’s the way that we save them. We get people to understand sea turtles. We get people to follow-up with them, and to know what each one of us needs to do in order to have sea turtles around in the future. It’s one thing for us to understand sea turtles, but if we don’t share that with anyone else, they’re not going to get saved.

 Q. How would you compare yourself now to when you first started out as a sea turtle biologist?

A. “I think, as is the case of most students, when I first began I thought I knew a lot. Now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I don’t know very much at all. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot, but the more I learn, the less I realize I really know. I’ve come to realize that the world is a very large and complex place, and it’s a struggle to really make sense of it. There are a lot of mysteries still [when it comes to sea turtles] and every other thing Earth. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about sea turtles, their environment, the people who affect their environment and who can help save sea turtles. It’s a very complex relationship. The more I learn, the more complex it seems.”

 Q. So, you’d say that the connection between sea turtles and human beings is the most important thing you’ve learned over the years?

A. “Yes I think so. It’s easy to get discouraged about environmental issues sometimes. When I was young I was very optimistic and that’s one of the most important things about youth–youthful people are very optimistic and idealistic. I’d like to think I’m still that way. I struggle to be that way. You know, the more you learn the ugly truth, the more you can get discouraged, but you shouldn’t be. You should stay optimistic, idealistic, aim high, try to do the very best you can and solve problems. Even though there are very big problems there are solutions to them. And those solutions are going to come about with a whole lot of hard work. You’ve got to keep pressing ahead. I’ve tried to gain wisdom and not be discouraged by it. Tried to stay optimistic.”

Q. What sort of key advice would you give to someone who aspires to also become a sea turtle biologist?

A. “I would say to be optimistic, but don’t have such high expectations that you become discouraged when the going gets tough. Everyday is not out in the field, with the wind blowing through your hair and having fun with the animals that you find interesting. Sometimes it’s very mundane stuff– it’s entering data and doing analyses. You have to love all of that to persevere. Don’t have expectations that you’re going to be out in the sea every single day, that’s not going to be the case. You have to love every aspect of the work, including the mundane stuff– sitting back in front of the computer, trying to make sense of it all.”

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Fossil fortune tellers: UF researcher uses fossil record to predict crustacean decline

5 Feb
Victoria Messina is a sophomore journalism student at the University of Florida. Though she typically enjoys writing about fashion and events happening around the UF campus, she decided to try something new by writing a science-based article for Layman’s Terms Media. “I decided to take the plunge into this science world that’s so foreign to me just to change things up a bit. It was really interesting and fun to talk to my sources and hear how passionate they are about this interesting and crucial subject.”

Victoria Messina is a sophomore journalism student at the University of Florida. Though she typically enjoys writing about fashion and events happening around the UF campus, she decided to try something new by writing a science-based article for Layman’s Terms Media. “I decided to take the plunge into this science world that’s so foreign to me just to change things up a bit. It was really interesting and fun to talk to my sources and hear how passionate they are about this interesting and crucial subject.”

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of contributing bloggers beginning their careers as journalists/public relations professionals at the University of Florida. Please see my earlier post about getting journalists excited about science writing early on.

 By Victoria Messina

By studying fossils from the Mesozoic Era,  a period 251-66 million years ago when reptiles shared the land with dinosaurs, researchers at the University of Florida now have a better understanding of the relationship between coral reefs and crustacean diversity.

The study showed that as coral reefs increased over the course of history, so did the biodiversity of decapod crustaceans such as lobsters, shrimp and crabs. But during a historical decline of reefs 150 million years ago, the biodiversity of crustaceans plummeted due to their  reliance on reefs for shelter and food.

Adiël Klompmaker, postdoctoral fellow at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF and lead author of the study, said this is the first comprehensive investigation of the rise of decapods in the fossil record.

Postdoctoral researcher Adiel Klompmaker is lead author of a new study suggesting a direct correlation between the abundance of coral reefs and the diversity of many crustaceans. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Postdoctoral researcher Adiel Klompmaker is lead author of a new study suggesting a direct correlation between the abundance of coral reefs and the diversity of many crustaceans.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Klompmaker said data showing the correlation between coral reefs and crustacean biodiversity had been previously lacking from the fossil record perspective.

His study, now available online and published  in November’s print issue of Geology, is also the first to quantitatively show that decapod diversity increased from four to over 1,300 species between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras in a time period referred to as the “Mesozoic Decapod Revolution.”

Klompmaker said this historical study gives scientists a clue as to what’s in store for the future of crustaceans.

“If reefs continue to decline at the current rate during this century, then a few thousand species of decapods are in real danger,” Klompmaker said.

Some scientists have predicted that nearly 20 percent of the world’s reefs may collapse within 40 years. Though complete extinction of all decapods is not likely, Klompmaker said adaptation to coral reef collapse would be very difficult for crustaceans that live in reefs and depend on them for food. The overall decline in coral reefs and decapod diversity poses major impacts, such as less availability of crustaceans like shrimp and crabs that are a major food and money source for many.

A small squat lobsters from the Late Jurassic of the Czech Republic. Photo by Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

A small squat lobsters from the Late Jurassic of the Czech Republic. Photo by Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

To most experts in the field, Klompmaker’s findings did not come as a surprise.

“After diving in reefs all around the Caribbean over the past 20 years, I have experienced their decline firsthand,” said Donald Behringer, assistant professor of Marine Ecological Processes and Field Ecology of Aquatic Organisms at UF.

Most research shows that the recent decline of reefs is due to both natural and human-induced causes.

Although storms and diseases have played a natural role in the deterioration, humans play a much larger role. One major human-influenced impact is ocean acidification, or the decrease in the pH of oceans due to excess carbon dioxide emissions. As the water becomes more acidic, the calcium carbonate base of the corals starts to corrode.

Andrew Zimmerman, associate professor of oceanography and geobiology at UF, said fossil fuel pollution is the root of all the human-influenced impact.

Klompmaker examines fossils of ancient crustaceans at the Florida Museum that may hold answers about the future of modern species. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Klompmaker examines fossils of ancient crustaceans at the Florida Museum that may hold answers about the future of modern species.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

“There’s much concern about major loss of species due to global warming on land, but the risk of mass extinction in ocean life is far greater due to combined effects of ocean acidification and global warming,” Zimmerman said.

Slowing the pace of climate change by reducing the release of greenhouse gases is the single most important change that needs to occur, though the positive effects of this change would not be evident for a long time, Behringer said.

However, there are more immediate steps that can be taken to lessen the brunt of direct human impacts on reefs. People who go boating, diving or fishing can take steps to make sure they are treating reefs in a sustainable manner, Behringer said.

For example, overfishing and coral injuries from boat anchors are two problems that can be easily fixed with proper management. Stricter fishing limits and enforcement are needed to ensure that certain areas don’t get overfished, Behringer said.  He also said simply implementing objects like buoys to protect reefs and alter human use patterns can possibly help reduce anchor impact. Behringer is currently working on a study to figure out the best way to tackle the boat anchor problem.

Some students around the UF campus are starting to realize the economic impact of at-risk reefs.

“So many people can be negatively affected by the decline of reefs, whether it’s someone whose job revolves around reefs or just a tourist who wants to enjoy the coral reefs,” said Evan Hill, UF sophomore studying marine sciences.

A quarry with Late Jurassic rocks representing a fossil coral reef in which many crustaceans were found in the Czech Republic. Photo by: Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

A quarry with Late Jurassic rocks representing a fossil coral reef in which many crustaceans were found in the Czech Republic. Photo by: Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

Klompmaker’s research showing the indisputable correlation between coral reefs and decapod presence has shown how reef deterioration negatively impacts the future seafood supply and the need for direct action. After all, history repeats itself.

“Everyone needs to be aware of it because everyone’s responsible for it,” Zimmerman said.

What’s for dinner? Island fish, brah: Study shows Hawaiian restaurant menus hold clues to reef health

27 Jan

hawaii_menu_02Most of us look at menus simply to make a quick decision about what we are going to consume in the near future and at what price.

We then give it back to our server and the menu is most likely forgotten.

But, some people may ask to take home a menu to remember their stay at a special place, such as the islands of the  Aloha state.

Scientists from Duke University, Stanford University and Colby College in Maine are using menus from Hawaiian seafood restaurants to look at changes in Pacific Ocean fisheries.   The menus were collected mostly from tourists who kept them as keepsakes.

During the mid-20th century, the researchers explained there was a period of almost five decades where official records documenting fish populations in the state were missing.  Now researchers must be innovative in how they analyze that time period.

“Market surveys and government statistics are the traditional sources for tracking fisheries,”  said Kyle S. Van Houtan, adjunct assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and leader of the Marine Turtle Assessment Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “But when those records don’t exist, we have to be more creative. Here we found restaurant menus were a workable proxy that chronicled the rise and fall of fisheries.”

The study, which looked at 376 menus from 154 different restaurants, showed somewhat predictable results.

Prior to 1940, fish that dwell near shore were a common delicacy. But, by 1959 when Hawaii was named an official US state, fishes such as reef fish, jack fish and bottom fish only made up about 10 percent of the menus. Instead, the reef dwellers were replaced with large pelagic fish such as tuna.

The large ocean dwellers made up 95 percent of the menus, almost eliminating the presence of near shore fish by 1970.

“The decline in reef fish in just a few decades was somewhat of a surprise to us. We knew at the outset the menus would have a unique historical perspective, but we did not expect the results to be so striking,” said study co-author Jack Kittinger, an early career fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions.

It could be the public’s taste buds simply changed, but Kittinger believes there is a logical reason for the change of the entree preference. He said the lack of the  shore dwelling fish on the menus went hand in hand with socioeconomic data showing decline in their populations in the wild.

 Loren McClenachan, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the study, said looking at the menus offered a different perspective on history.

“Historical ecology typically focuses on supply-side information,” McClenachan said. “Restaurant menus are an available but often overlooked source of information on the demand side; they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time.”

Sea turtles are Gulf travelers, scientists say

23 Dec
 Loggerhead “exchanges” between study sites. Tracks of satellite-tagged adult female loggerheads (Caretta caretta) 119941 and 119946 during the inter-nesting period in 2012 (A); tracks of satellite-tagged adult female loggerheads 108172 (2011) and 119940 (2012) during the inter-nesting period (B). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066921.g002

Loggerhead “exchanges” between study sites.
Tracks of satellite-tagged adult female loggerheads (Caretta caretta) 119941 and 119946 during the inter-nesting period in 2012 (A); tracks of satellite-tagged adult female loggerheads 108172 (2011) and 119940 (2012) during the inter-nesting period (B).
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066921.g002

Gulf Loggerheads were always thought to be homebodies.

After the females nested, they would make a home at their local beach. They would never travel too far from familiarity.

But, these  threatened female loggerheads are more curious than scientists once thought.

A new study suggests that the turtles nest in different places–laying eggs on the coast of Louisiana one week and traveling hundreds of miles to make another home in Florida weeks later.

The authors of the U.S. Geological Survey study say that the travel routes–which may be littered with leftover oil and increased predators–pose a greater risk to the sea turtle population. The conservation efforts may need to be modified to reflect the findings.

“The satellite data and our observations on the ground tell the same story: loggerheads in this subpopulation nest at multiple beaches, sometimes hundreds of miles apart,” lead author Kristen Hart, a USGS research ecologist, said.

Co-author and USGS biologist Meg Lamont said that simply protecting beaches that are known to be highly populated with sea turtle nests may not be enough.

“These data show it is not sufficient to just protect habitat around high density nesting beaches – such as the St. Joseph Peninsula – because many turtles that nest on the Peninsula use the entire region from the eastern Florida Panhandle to Louisiana,” said Lamont.

Hart said she and her team are continuing to map out the travel routes by tagging the turtles.

“We are working towards defining areas where sea turtles concentrate their activities at sea, effectively building a map of in-water turtle hotspots,” Hart said. “The more we know about their habitat use, the more questions are raised about their behavior and ability to adapt. We hope to build a better understanding of how frequently turtles return to these same locations, and whether or not they move to new habitats when those locations are impacted. This type of information would be extremely valuable for developing management strategies to help in population recovery.”

The study, “Movements and Habitat-Use of Loggerhead Sea Turtles in the Northern Gulf of Mexico during the Reproductive Period,” was published July 3 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Editor’s picks for 2013

2 Dec

banner_final2.jpgI know we still have a month left in 2013.

But with finals and holiday break coming up, I felt it would be appropriate to make a “Best of” post highlighting some of my favorite posts. Since a majority of the blog is written by me, I feel this aggregation serves as a reflection on the type of science writing I have done and the posts I enjoyed the most. But, I’ve also had some amazing guest bloggers this year and will also be including some of their posts as well. So check out the stories below in case you missed them! Thank you to all my loyal followers.

P.S. Once my thesis is over, expect big things!

Best of Layman’s Terms Media, 2013 (no particular order)

Breast cancer vaccines are nothing new: By Dorothy Hagmajer   “Am I going to die?”  That was Susan Foster’s first question when her doctor told her she had breast cancer.Continue reading

Science in the city: In the basement of the emergency medicine corridor of UF Health Jacksonville, Robert Wears, M.D., a professor in the department of emergency medicine, scans engineering books and medical journals, taking notes on his cluttered desk. He is carefully piecing together the historical puzzle of hospital safety.—> Continue reading

Eat, love and die. The short, but meaningful lives of love “bugs: Miss Plecia is all dolled up. She has been stuffing herself full of organic material and nectar in her swampy-syle pad for the past 20 days with hopes of finding her lifelong mate.—> Continue reading

What exactly is pus? Find out in 15 seconds.Wendy Corrales joins us this week to explain the gross, gooey liquid that plagues teenagers–pus!—-> Continue reading

What’s the deal with Dengue Fever? If you live in Florida, don’t ignore.As a Floridian I have somewhat become immune to the feel of a mosquito bite. The annoying quick itch sensation is quickly thwarted by the thoughtless reflex of my hand slapping the affected area and then quickly scratching up and down for a few seconds. After that, I pretty much forget about the bite.—> Continue reading

Scientist uses Instagram videos to explain anatomy concepts in 15 secondsI am always looking for people who share a passion for science and genuinely want to get others excited about it too, which is one of the main reasons I’m studying science communication. While I was in D.C. for the Science Online Climate Conference, I stayed with my friend Steph who introduced me to Wendy Corrales via Facebook. She showed me her videos and I was cracking up.—> Continue reading

UF researcher says T cells the answer to cancer vaccines: John “Bobby” Goulding, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine at the University of Florida, is in a scramble to help create safe and effective vaccines to prevent and fight human respiratory viruses.—>Continue reading

Rebecca Burton is the founder and editor of Layman's Terms Media. Started in 2011, this blog has been used to exercise Rebecca's love of science writing. These posts were selected based on how much was learned throughout the writing process, or the stories that were simply the most fun.

Rebecca Burton is the founder and editor of Layman’s Terms Media. Started in 2011, this blog has been used to exercise Rebecca’s love of science writing. These posts were selected based on how much was learned throughout the writing process, or the stories that were simply the most fun.

What’s for dinner? Island fish, brah: Study shows Hawaiian restaurant menus hold clues to reef healthMost of us look at menus simply to make a quick decision about what we are going to consume in the near future and at what price. We then give it back to our server and the menu is most likely forgotten. –> Continue reading

Abusive mothers’ DNA and the economy could share the blame with Florida DCF for recent child deaths: The Florida Department of Children and Families has been under fire for the past couple of years for failing to stop child abuse and neglect, resulting in thedeaths of seven childrenwho the department said were in “no immediate danger.” —> Continue reading

Wearing goggles to surf: Kook status or Florida Red Tide?: I took a deep breath in. Smelling the saltwater has always been my ritual before starting the process of unloading my surfboard. But, this time I did not feel refreshed or enlightened by the beach breeze. My eyes started to water.—> Continue reading

Native Florida wildlife caught on camera: By Michael Stone Wildlife photographer Michael Stone, a graduate student in science/health communications at the University of Florida, posts the different species and subspecies he sees in his online catalog.—> Continue reading

Great whites use stored liver oil to power through ocean “road trips”Bears, sea lions and whales rely on their external blubber to power through hibernations and migrations. For them, a little extra flab is crucial to their survival.—> Continue reading

 Sea turtles are Gulf travelers, scientists sayGulf Loggerheads were always thought to be homebodies. After the females nested, they would make a home at their local beach. They would never travel too far from familiarity.—> Continue reading

AAV: from ‘Almost A Virus’ to ‘An Awesome Virus’: In 1965, adeno-associated virus (AAV) was discovered while hitching a ride into the cell with adenovirus, which is a virus that causes the fretted pink eye, cold sores and sore throats.—> Continue reading

The Skinny on Good Fats and Bad Fats: How both will affect your health: By Megan Khan Karen Diet trends come in waves. One decade we see the rejection of carbohydrates, and we shun animal products the next. Some of you reading this right now may remember the low fat craze of the 90’s–it was then that fat got a bad rep. The reputation has stuck so much that “fat” is now considered an insult.—> Continue reading

Will tiny drones cure Floridians’ cynicism toward hurricanes? Most residents of Florida–a state constantly pummeled by tropical storms and hurricanes—have become overly cynical of the often hyped-up weather news warning that the latest tropical action in the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean could be deadly. —> Continue reading

Croaking Cuban frogs Create Competition in South Florida: Southern Florida, particularly the more metropolitan areas such as Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are definitely not known for being quiet areas. The constant honking of horns, people yelling in multiple languages and bold headlines of bizarre news events make South Florida a melting pot of noise. —>Continue reading

Why Nemo would face an inevitable mid-life crisis: A finding Nemo 2 would not be Disney friendlyIf you’ve seen the movie Finding Nemo, and didn’t like it–shame on you! Pixar movies always have the right amount of humor, recognizable voices and great graphics that make them appealing to both children and adults. Their sequels are almost always just as profitable as the originals, and they’re ability to make animation seem like reality is superb! But, although I love this movie, there are serious factual flaws.—>Continue reading

Monkeys in Florida? iPhonatography from a jungle in Central FloridaAs I pondered ideas on what to do on Memorial Day Monday, I decided I needed to explore the land-locked area of Florida I often complain about, being a spoiled coastal girl who is accustomed to living near a beach. A friend mentioned a trip he took where he saw wild monkeys on an island in the middle of Silver River, near Silver Springs, Fla. After doing some preliminary research (mainly hear-say from Gainesville locals) I found out that  Silver River was the filming site the early Tarzan movies. Some of the monkeys escaped, bred and hence that is why there are wild monkeys in Florida.—> Continue reading

When did eating become so confusing? Tips to simplify your diet: By Megan Khan Karen There are hundreds of diets that are said to make you healthier than you have ever been, rejuvenate your body, avoid certain cancers, help you fit in your high school jeans and the list goes on. From the Atkins diet to the current “juicing” craze, we are fed heaps of “truths” about certain diets that are usually based on a tiny kernel of truth and a whole lot of anecdotal “evidence.”—> Continue reading

Warning: Smoothies can cause sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgiaIt’s that time of year again. Summer. Hot. Humid.The urge to swap that hot coffee for a refreshing smoothie may overcome you. But beware, drinking cold drinks can cause a condition called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.—> Continue reading

What do hula-hoopers, big-wave surfers and composers have in common? A state of “flow”For those of you who do follow my blog, you may have realized I’m a pretty big hoop enthusiast, who also enjoys an everyday runner’s high. Although the physical benefits of running and spinning a circle on various parts of my body may seem obvious, it’s the mental state I’m in when I go on a 5-mile run, or do a freestyle hoop-dance to a 10-track playlist that brings me back after a long workday.—> Continue reading

Be swamp-conscious: Pet owners should be aware of deadly pathogen in Gainesville: By Jackson Presser Pythium insidiosum is common in stagnant, swampy water (lakes/ponds with water temperatures ranging from 68F-95F) worldwide, and the very type of water that is a staple of Gainesville and surrounding areas.  Pythiosis affects its host depending on how it is introduced. Dogs, horses, cattle and other mammals can be infected simply by wading or drinking water that has been tainted with the infection. —> Continue reading

Fossil fortune tellers: UF researcher uses fossil record to predict crustacean decline

28 Oct
Victoria Messina is a sophomore journalism student at the University of Florida. Though she typically enjoys writing about fashion and events happening around the UF campus, she decided to try something new by writing a science-based article for Layman’s Terms Media. “I decided to take the plunge into this science world that’s so foreign to me just to change things up a bit. It was really interesting and fun to talk to my sources and hear how passionate they are about this interesting and crucial subject.”

Victoria Messina is a sophomore journalism student at the University of Florida. Though she typically enjoys writing about fashion and events happening around the UF campus, she decided to try something new by writing a science-based article for Layman’s Terms Media. “I decided to take the plunge into this science world that’s so foreign to me just to change things up a bit. It was really interesting and fun to talk to my sources and hear how passionate they are about this interesting and crucial subject.”

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of contributing bloggers beginning their careers as journalists/public relations professionals at the University of Florida. Please see my earlier post about getting journalists excited about science writing early on.

 By Victoria Messina

By studying fossils from the Mesozoic Era,  a period 251-66 million years ago when reptiles shared the land with dinosaurs, researchers at the University of Florida now have a better understanding of the relationship between coral reefs and crustacean diversity.

The study showed that as coral reefs increased over the course of history, so did the biodiversity of decapod crustaceans such as lobsters, shrimp and crabs. But during a historical decline of reefs 150 million years ago, the biodiversity of crustaceans plummeted due to their  reliance on reefs for shelter and food.

Adiël Klompmaker, postdoctoral fellow at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF and lead author of the study, said this is the first comprehensive investigation of the rise of decapods in the fossil record.

Postdoctoral researcher Adiel Klompmaker is lead author of a new study suggesting a direct correlation between the abundance of coral reefs and the diversity of many crustaceans. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Postdoctoral researcher Adiel Klompmaker is lead author of a new study suggesting a direct correlation between the abundance of coral reefs and the diversity of many crustaceans.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Klompmaker said data showing the correlation between coral reefs and crustacean biodiversity had been previously lacking from the fossil record perspective.

His study, now available online and published  in November’s print issue of Geology, is also the first to quantitatively show that decapod diversity increased from four to over 1,300 species between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras in a time period referred to as the “Mesozoic Decapod Revolution.”

Klompmaker said this historical study gives scientists a clue as to what’s in store for the future of crustaceans.

“If reefs continue to decline at the current rate during this century, then a few thousand species of decapods are in real danger,” Klompmaker said.

Some scientists have predicted that nearly 20 percent of the world’s reefs may collapse within 40 years. Though complete extinction of all decapods is not likely, Klompmaker said adaptation to coral reef collapse would be very difficult for crustaceans that live in reefs and depend on them for food. The overall decline in coral reefs and decapod diversity poses major impacts, such as less availability of crustaceans like shrimp and crabs that are a major food and money source for many.

A small squat lobsters from the Late Jurassic of the Czech Republic. Photo by Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

A small squat lobsters from the Late Jurassic of the Czech Republic. Photo by Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

To most experts in the field, Klompmaker’s findings did not come as a surprise.

“After diving in reefs all around the Caribbean over the past 20 years, I have experienced their decline firsthand,” said Donald Behringer, assistant professor of Marine Ecological Processes and Field Ecology of Aquatic Organisms at UF.

Most research shows that the recent decline of reefs is due to both natural and human-induced causes.

Although storms and diseases have played a natural role in the deterioration, humans play a much larger role. One major human-influenced impact is ocean acidification, or the decrease in the pH of oceans due to excess carbon dioxide emissions. As the water becomes more acidic, the calcium carbonate base of the corals starts to corrode.

Andrew Zimmerman, associate professor of oceanography and geobiology at UF, said fossil fuel pollution is the root of all the human-influenced impact.

Klompmaker examines fossils of ancient crustaceans at the Florida Museum that may hold answers about the future of modern species. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

Klompmaker examines fossils of ancient crustaceans at the Florida Museum that may hold answers about the future of modern species.
Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Jeff Gage

“There’s much concern about major loss of species due to global warming on land, but the risk of mass extinction in ocean life is far greater due to combined effects of ocean acidification and global warming,” Zimmerman said.

Slowing the pace of climate change by reducing the release of greenhouse gases is the single most important change that needs to occur, though the positive effects of this change would not be evident for a long time, Behringer said.

However, there are more immediate steps that can be taken to lessen the brunt of direct human impacts on reefs. People who go boating, diving or fishing can take steps to make sure they are treating reefs in a sustainable manner, Behringer said.

For example, overfishing and coral injuries from boat anchors are two problems that can be easily fixed with proper management. Stricter fishing limits and enforcement are needed to ensure that certain areas don’t get overfished, Behringer said.  He also said simply implementing objects like buoys to protect reefs and alter human use patterns can possibly help reduce anchor impact. Behringer is currently working on a study to figure out the best way to tackle the boat anchor problem.

Some students around the UF campus are starting to realize the economic impact of at-risk reefs.

“So many people can be negatively affected by the decline of reefs, whether it’s someone whose job revolves around reefs or just a tourist who wants to enjoy the coral reefs,” said Evan Hill, UF sophomore studying marine sciences.

A quarry with Late Jurassic rocks representing a fossil coral reef in which many crustaceans were found in the Czech Republic. Photo by: Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

A quarry with Late Jurassic rocks representing a fossil coral reef in which many crustaceans were found in the Czech Republic. Photo by: Adiël Klompmaker, University of Florida

Klompmaker’s research showing the indisputable correlation between coral reefs and decapod presence has shown how reef deterioration negatively impacts the future seafood supply and the need for direct action. After all, history repeats itself.

“Everyone needs to be aware of it because everyone’s responsible for it,” Zimmerman said.

What’s for dinner? Island fish, brah: Study shows Hawaiian restaurant menus hold clues to reef health

7 Aug

hawaii_menu_02Most of us look at menus simply to make a quick decision about what we are going to consume in the near future and at what price.

We then give it back to our server and the menu is most likely forgotten.

But, some people may ask to take home a menu to remember their stay at a special place, such as the islands of the  Aloha state.

Scientists from Duke University, Stanford University and Colby College in Maine are using menus from Hawaiian seafood restaurants to look at changes in Pacific Ocean fisheries.   The menus were collected mostly from tourists who kept them as keepsakes.

During the mid-20th century, the researchers explained there was a period of almost five decades where official records documenting fish populations in the state were missing.  Now researchers must be innovative in how they analyze that time period.

“Market surveys and government statistics are the traditional sources for tracking fisheries,”  said Kyle S. Van Houtan, adjunct assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and leader of the Marine Turtle Assessment Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “But when those records don’t exist, we have to be more creative. Here we found restaurant menus were a workable proxy that chronicled the rise and fall of fisheries.”

The study, which looked at 376 menus from 154 different restaurants, showed somewhat predictable results.

Prior to 1940, fish that dwell near shore were a common delicacy. But, by 1959 when Hawaii was named an official US state, fishes such as reef fish, jack fish and bottom fish only made up about 10 percent of the menus. Instead, the reef dwellers were replaced with large pelagic fish such as tuna.

The large ocean dwellers made up 95 percent of the menus, almost eliminating the presence of near shore fish by 1970.

“The decline in reef fish in just a few decades was somewhat of a surprise to us. We knew at the outset the menus would have a unique historical perspective, but we did not expect the results to be so striking,” said study co-author Jack Kittinger, an early career fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions.

It could be the public’s taste buds simply changed, but Kittinger believes there is a logical reason for the change of the entree preference. He said the lack of the  shore dwelling fish on the menus went hand in hand with socioeconomic data showing decline in their populations in the wild.

 Loren McClenachan, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the study, said looking at the menus offered a different perspective on history.

“Historical ecology typically focuses on supply-side information,” McClenachan said. “Restaurant menus are an available but often overlooked source of information on the demand side; they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time.”