Oyster Predators in the Florida Panhandle

Oyster Predators in the Florida Panhandle

Even though oysters have a hard shell that even humans have a hard time opening, they do have natural predators in our waters that can easily slurp up a couple dozen. Your usual oyster slurping suspects include oyster drills, blue crabs, and fish (such as the black drum).  In this article, we will focus on the 3 major predators that contribute the most toward natural mortality in oysters here in the Florida Panhandle.

The Oyster Drill

When it comes to the marine snail world, oyster drills would win an oyster-eating contest. Oyster drills (Urosalpinx cinerea) are marine gastropods that grow to sizes of 0.5 – 1 inch. Oyster drills can be found all along the Atlantic coast of North America and the Gulf of Mexico, and they have been accidentally introduced into Northern Europe and the West Coast of North America. These small but mighty snails have become specialized in consuming oysters. Using chemotaxis, they locate their prey oyster. Once they find it, they secrete an enzyme to soften a portion of the oyster shell. Once softened, they drill into the shell and siphon out oyster meat. Oyster drills have been known to occur in great numbers when the environmental conditions are prime and can wipe out not only entire oyster beds but also clam beds. Oyster drills do have natural predators as well, but these predators also consume oysters.

Oyster Drill
An Oyster Drill (Urosalpinx cinerea) – Barnegat Bay Shellfish

The Blue Crab

Most of us know about the very tasty blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), but many do not know that it is a major consumer of oysters, especially on an oyster farm. Blue crabs are a decapod crab (meaning 10 legs) of the swimming crab family Portunidae. Blue crabs can indeed swim and their last leg on each side has developed into what are called paddle fins.  Juvenile oysters are the main target for blue crabs, but they have been observed eating adult oysters when given the opportunity. On an oyster farm, blue crabs can get into an oyster bag when they are very small. Once inside, they have an all-you-can-eat buffet of oysters, and can quickly wipe out a bag of oysters. Oyster farmers have to be very cautious and must either remove the blue crabs manually or dry their bags out in hopes of destroying any blue crabs. Blue crabs can easily break open a juvenile oyster, but for them to consume an adult oyster, they will wait for it to open to feed before shoving a claw inside of the shell to keep the oyster open. Once they have their claw in the shell, they will use their other claw to consume the oyster.

Blue Crabs on a table
Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus) Pulled Out Of Oyster Bags – Thomas Derbes II

The Fish

Even though oyster-eating fish like black drum (Pogonias cromis) and sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) are much bigger than snails and crabs, they tend to contribute less to oyster mortality on oyster farms. However, during certain seasons wild oysters and other shelled invertebrates can contribute up to 33% of a black drum’s diet (more here). Fish will usually congregate around oyster beds and farms, but they are more interested in consuming oyster predators like crabs and snails. The black drum is a fish that was built for oyster consumption. While black drum lack sharp teeth, they have crushing plates in their throat that can crush an oyster shell which allows the drum to eat the oyster meat. Many oyster farmers welcome these fish on their farms as a free source of anti-fouling and predator deterrent (in the form of consumption).

Black Drum
Black Drum (Pogonias cromis) Caught On A Whole Oyster – Thomas Derbes II

There are many more oyster predators, but these are the top 3 in terms of threat and ability to consume/do detriment to oyster beds and farms in the Florida Panhandle. While oyster drills rank up towards the top, crabs and fish can also greatly contribute to natural mortality.


Flimlin, G., & F Beal, B. (n.d.). Major Predators of Cultured Shellfish. https://shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/Major-Predators-of-Cultured-Shellfish.pdf

Local Oysters Displaying “Green Gills” 

Local Oysters Displaying “Green Gills” 

And it’s a good thing! Green gill oysters are prized in the oyster community. In the Carolinas and Northern France, green gill oysters are a seasonal, cherished crop and a product of the saying “You are what you eat!” The phytoplankton, Haslea ostrearia, is the typical culprit, and their distribution is measured by direct observation from plankton tows or the occurrence of green-gilled oysters. The exact distribution is unknown, but there are reports of H. ostrearia throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Haslea ostrearia is a beautiful pennate diatom that contains a water-soluble blue pigment known as marennine (More Here). Marennine’s production is stimulated by long photoperiods, blue light, and high light/low cloud weather. It can also be released into the water and into the flesh of organisms (typically oysters) that consume them.

Green-gill oyster on the farm
Fresh out of the water Grayson Bay Oyster with green gills! – Brandon Smith, Grayson Bay Oyster Company

Pensacola Bay, and surrounding areas, had a pretty mild fall in terms of rainfall, and the bays have turned a beautiful green-blue hue as the bays have risen in salinity and phytoplankton typically found in the Gulf of Mexico were able to survive. Brandon Smith, owner of Grayson Bay Oyster Company, was out working his farm January 7th, 2024, and sent a text to me saying “take note of the green gills,” and I was very shocked and happy to see actual, green-gilled oysters in our local waterways. He graciously harvested a few dozen to examine (and let me taste test), and I was able to confirm the presence of green gills in the oysters. After further research on H. ostrearia, it seems as though the pennate diatom made it into our bays and is the culprit of this wonderful surprise.

Oyster displaying green-gills
A local Grayson Bay Oyster displaying green-gills – Thomas Derbes II

When I shucked my graciously donated oysters from Grayson Bay, I was reminiscing on the first time I came across green-gilled oysters. The first batch of green gill oysters I ate came from an oyster farm in North Carolina called N. Sea Oyster Company. Their green-gilled beauties “Divine Pines” were requested by a wedding I was catering for, and I was able to slurp down one to get talking and tasting notes. The seasonal Divine Pines offered a sweet yet salty taste and became one of my favorite out-of-area oysters to serve at events and to personally consume. While beautiful, the green-gilled oysters are usually only found in the fall/winter months. These green-gilled Grayson Bays were very comparable and offered a salty yet very sweet and minerally finish. The H. ostrearia is responsible for not only the green gills, but the sweet tasting notes, and I highly recommend adding any green-gilled oyster to your fall/winter raw bar selection.   


Turpin, Vincent & Robert, J-M & Philippe, Goulletquer & Massé, Guillaume & Rosa, Philippe. (2008). Oyster greening by outdoor mass culture of the diatom Haslea ostrearia Simonsen in enriched seawater. Aquaculture Research. 32. 801 – 809.

From Seed to Shuck – More Oyster 101

From Seed to Shuck – More Oyster 101

When you hear about oyster farming, you typically hear the word “seed” and how it is highly important to the future of the farm. While it might not be a typical seed that produces agricultural crops like corn, this seed is a living, breathing (albeit in the water) organism that produces a beautiful, cupped oyster. Depending on market size demand and requirements, it could take anywhere from 8 to 24 months to reach “shucking ready” size. Let’s take a dive into the timeline of an oyster, from seed to shuck.

Cooler Full of Seed Headed To Farm
A cooler full of R6 oyster seed headed out to the farm – Grayson Bay Oyster Company

Oyster farmers typically buy seed from an oyster nursery or hatchery, where they carefully spawn male and female oysters together in individual spawning chambers. Depending on the farmer’s needs, they can produce either diploid or triploid oyster larvae (more on triploids next week). These larvae are free-swimming for the first 2-3 weeks of their life until they develop into pediveligers (Oyster 101). Hatcheries will, for lack of better terms, mix the pediveligers with very tiny grains of ground-up oyster shells. These pediveligers will then attach to a single grain and begin to form into a “seed” oyster. Seed costs range and vary from year to year, and this cost is usually one of the biggest financial purchases oyster farmers can make. Seed is sold by size, starting at 6 millimeters (typically called size R6), and by increments of 1,000. Hatcheries and nurseries are located all along the Gulf Coast, but Florida law requires seed put in the Gulf of Mexico waters and estuaries must come from Gulf of Mexico hatcheries, and the same rules apply to Atlantic waters.

Oyster Seed
Oyster Seed (>R16) – Thomas Derbes II

Once purchased, these seed oysters make it to their homes in beautiful nutrient-rich waters and grow at a steady rate, and can reach an overall size of 2 inches in 4 to 9 months. During those months, the seed are filtering gallons of water per oyster per day, helping sequester carbon in their shells and consuming large amounts of plankton and algae that could contribute to the eutrophication of the bays. Oyster farmers will check on the seed almost weekly, changing bag mesh sizes and sorting the seed by size. Farmers will also take this opportunity to check for any oyster predators and swiftly evict them from their all-you-can-eat buffet. Sorting is done by using a “tumbler” that has a long drum with holes of varying sizes. This tumbler also helps clean the oyster and chip away at the lip of an oyster shell, causing the oyster to grow deeper and create a beautiful cup.

Farmed oysters do not have a size limit, but most farmers stick to a 2.5 to 3-inch size oyster. These oysters have filtered over 7,000 gallons of estuary water individually and sequestered a very generous amount of carbon, in the form of calcium carbonite (more here), in their shells in their first year of life. Once deemed ready for harvest, farmers will pull them out of the water and get them quickly in the fridge, following strict biosecurity guidelines and regulations to provide a safe product year-round.

Oysters of varying size
Some oysters are fast growers! These were apart of the same spawn. – Thomas Derbes II

And there you have it, from seed to shuck. With the holidays coming up, and seafood sometimes being a part of the holiday plans, reach out to the local oyster farmers in your area to reserve a dozen or two for your favorite uncle. You can also wow the crowd with this very fancy mignonette recipe below! 

Lemon Champagne Mignonette

Juice From 2 Local Meyer Lemons (They’re in Season!)

1 Shallot Chopped Finely

½ cup Champagne Vinegar

¼ cup Red Vinegar

1 tbsp each of Green and Pink Peppercorns 

24 Local Farm Raised Oysters (For the Environment!) 

1.       In a bowl, add the juice of Meyer lemons and shallots. Let it marinate for 10 minutes.

2.       Add champagne vinegar, red vinegar, and peppercorns to the lemons and shallots.

3.       Chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.

4.       Shuck oysters and top with freshly made mignonette. Enjoy!

Meet the Barnacle

Meet the Barnacle

You might say this is a strange title – “meet the barnacle” – because everyone knows what a barnacle is… or do they? 

As a marine science instructor, I gave my students what is called a lab practical.  This is a test where you move around the room and answer questions about different creatures preserved in jars.  Almost every time that got to the barnacle they were stumped.  I mean they knew it was a barnacle but what kind of animal is it?  What phylum is it in? 

Going through a thought process they would more often than not choose that it was a mollusk.  This makes perfect sense because of the calcium carbonate shell it produces.  As a matter of fact, science thought it was a mollusk until 1830 when the larval stage was discovered, and they knew they were dealing with something different.  It is not a mollusk.  So… what IS it?  Let’s meet the barnacle…

Barnacles along the seashore is a common site for many. Photo: NOAA

The barnacle is actually an arthropod.  Yep… the same group as crabs and shrimp, insects and spiders.  Weird right…

But that is because the creature down within that calcium carbonate shell is more like a tiny shrimp than an oyster.   It is in the class Cirripedia within the subphylum Crustacea.  It is the only animal in this class and the only sessile (non-motile) crustacean. 

Barnacles are exclusively marine.  This has been helpful when conducting surveys for terrapins or assessing locations for living shorelines – if you see barnacles growing on rocks, shells, or pilings, it is salty enough.  There are over 900 species described and they live independently from each other attached to seawalls, rocks, pilings, boats, even turtle shells.  Louis Agassiz described the barnacle as “nothing more than a little shrimplike creature, standing on its head in a limestone house kicking food into its mouth.” 

This image from a textbook shows the internal structure of a barnacle. Notice the shrimplike animal on its back with extendable appendages (cirri) for feeding. Image: Robert Barnes Invertebrate Zoology.

The planktonic barnacle larva settles to the bottom and attaches to a hard substrate using a cement produced from a gland near the base of their first set of antenna (crustaceans, unlike insects and spiders, have two sets of antenna).  It is usually head down/tail up and begins to secrete limestone plates forming the well known “shell” of the animal.  Some barnacles produce a long stalk near the head end (called the peduncle) which holds the adhesive gland and it is the peduncle that attaches to the hard substrate, not the head directly.  The goose neck barnacle is an example of this.  We find them most often in the wrack along the Gulf side of our beaches attached to driftwood or marine debris. 

Lucky was found in the Gulf of Mexico. He had been there long enough for these goose neck barnacles to attach and grow. Photo: Bob Blais

The “shell” of the barnacle is a series of calcium carbonate plates they secrete.  These plates overlap and are connected by either a membrane or interlocking “teeth”.  The body lies 90° from the point of attachment on its back. 

There are six pairs of “legs” which are very long and are extended out of the “doors” of the shell and make a sweeping motion to collect planktonic food in the water column.  They are most abundant in the intertidal areas were there are rocks, seawalls, or pilings. 

Most species are hermaphroditic (possessing both sperm and egg) but cross fertilization is generally the rule.  Barnacles signal whether they are acting males or females via pheromones and fertilization occurs internally, the gametes are not discharged into the water column as in some mollusks and corals.  The developing eggs brood internally as well.  Our local barnacle (Balanus) breeds in the fall and the larva (nauplius) are released into the water column in the spring by the tens of thousands.  The larva goes through a series of metamorphic changes until it settles on a hard substrate and becomes the adult we know.  They usually settle in dense groups in order to enhance internal fertilization for the next generation.  Those who survive the early stages of life will live between two and six years. 

So, there you go… this is what a barnacle is… a shrimplike crustacean who is attached to the bottom by its head, secretes a fortress of calcium carbonate plates around itself, and feeds on plankton with its long extending legs.  A pretty cool creature. 


Barnes, R.D. 1980. Invertebrate Zoology. Saunders College Publishing.  Philadelphia PA.  pp. 1089. 

Pine Tree in What?

Pine Tree in What?

What do ice cream, make-up, paint, plastic, air freshener, laundry detergent, cellophane, and rayon fabric have in common?  They all have pine tree in them.  There are hundreds of products that contain the cellulose or sap from the pine tree species native to Florida’s panhandle, particularly Longleaf and Slash pines. 

Early foresters of the 1800’s discovered these pine species that grew tall and strong.  In fact, Longleaf pines were so overharvested that there is only about 3% of the original forests remaining today.  These trees not only provided a huge resource for lumber, they also supplied the fluids necessary to support the timber industry – turpentine.  By “cat-facing” (cutting downward angled slashes) the trunk of pine trees, the sap would flow into collection cups placed on the trunks. It was collected and heated.

Sap flowing from pine tree
Pine tree sap- turpentine

Turpentine is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin harvested from pine trees.  As a solvent, it is used for thinning oil-based paint, for producing varnishes, and as a raw material for the chemical industry.  Add some beeswax and it becomes furniture wax.  In the early years, turpentine mixed with coal oil and kerosene was used as a topical wound dressing and lice treatment.  Add some animal fats to make primitive vapor rub. 

Terpene is the scientific term coined in 1866 to denote all hydrocarbons with the formula C10H16.  The word was a shortened form of “terpentine”, the obsolete spelling of “turpentine”.  Terpenes are major biosynthetic building blocks for the oils in plants.  For the plants, these oils play a critical role in defense against herbivory, build disease resistance, and aid in attracting pollinators. When the resin of pine trees (turpentine) is distilled, each of the terpenes can be separated. Based on there formulation, the terpenes are the base for fragrances and flavoring in numerous consumer products. With various heating treatments, many “fresh scented” cleaning products and antiseptics can be produced.  Others terpenes will add “taste” to ice cream, chewing gum, and even beer. The cellulose separated from the turpentine is used to provide “structure” to cosmetics, fabrics, impact-resistant plastics, and modern digital display screens.

Who knew that you could get so many uses from pine trees.  They are not just for making 2 x 4s anymore. In fact, the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the scientist that sorted out the 55,000 terpene compounds from turpentine.  You may never look at a pine tree (or your beer) the same way again.

Dirty Jobs Abound in the Natural World

Dirty Jobs Abound in the Natural World

Most of us have had the displeasure of hurrying to our car, late for some appointment, climbing in, only to be assaulted by…sniff-sniff…the overpowering stench of doggy poo on a shoe. I can handle many of nature’s nasty smells pretty well but this one nearly gags me. Imagine if this stuff never went away and kept accumulating on the ground. For any of us that have even one big dog, this would be a problem. Heaven help the dog lovers out there with two or more large canines. Well, this article will be paying homage to the unsung heroes of the manure-removal squad, who could give Mike Rowe a run for his money any day. You guessed it, dung beetles.

Dung beetles are most assuredly not the only critters who make their living by what we would consider disgusting means. Carrion beetles, fly maggots, vultures and many other creatures would qualify for an episode of “Dirty Jobs in the Animal Kingdom.” However, the incredible beauty of many species of scarab beetles (the group to which dung beetles belong), resulted in high reverence in the ancient Egyptian culture. In more recent times, humans have realized the benefits provided by dung beetles and have intentionally introduced them in some places to manage dung accumulation in pasture systems. Their tunneling not only takes the dung below for a nutrient recycling function but also brings soil castings to the surface, which reduces soil compaction and improves aeration.

I have seen dung beetles many times, as they work in the yard to reduce my chances of “stepping in it.” Until recently, I have not paid close attention to the incredible beauty of our local species. I had a great opportunity the other day to observe several beetles as they reduced a pile of dog mess to smaller messes and pulled them into their tunnels for long-term storage. The showy, metallic colors of red and green made it apparent why some refer to these creatures as “rainbow” scarabs. They were happy to ignore my presence as I took pictures only inches away from their frenzied activity to salvage their prized doggy treats.

The dung serves as food for both young and adults during periods when they remain underground. Females lay a single egg on what is referred to as a “brood ball” of dung and there may be several of these pre-packaged meals with an egg in the tunnel system made by the beetles. I was able to get some good photos of a beetle as it worked above ground moving dung balls away from the mother lode. It appears to be a species known as Phanaeus igneus, which occurs in our area along with a similar species named Phanaeus vindex. In Florida, Phanaeus igneus tends to occur in sandy soils, while P. vindex prefers clay-type soils. The finely sculptured elytra (hard wing covers) of P. igneus also distinguish it from P. vindex. Eggs hatch into a grub that matures below ground before emerging as a mature adult to continue the cycle.

Dung beetle near burrow entrance

Females of this species are distinguished from males by the lack of a horn.

The dung beetle’s sense of smell is truly a wonder of nature. I have seen them flying in for a sniff test literally within minutes of deposition. Within the next day or two, the only evidence of your pooch’s crime will be small mounds of soil where the excavations took place. I was so taken with these little jewels of the manure pile that you might understand why I think you should be just as amazed. So, the next time you find a fresh pile in the yard, drop down to your knees for a closer look and be prepared to be amazed. If the manure-removal squad has not appeared on the scene yet, give them a few minutes. It won’t take very long. In the meantime, you can be thinking about how you will explain your behavior to your neighbors when they inquire.