Embrace the Gulf 2020 – marine snails and slugs

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – marine snails and slugs

One of the largest groups of invertebrates in the Gulf are the Mollusk… what many call “seashells”.  Shell collecting has been popular for centuries and, in times past, there were large shows where shells from around the world were traded.  Almost everyone who visits the beach is attracted to, and must take home, a seashell to remind them of the peace beaches give us.  Many are absolutely beautiful, and you wonder how such small simple creatures can create such beauty.

One of the more beautiful shells from the sea – the nautilus.
Photo: Wikipedia

Well, first – not all mollusk are small.  There are cephalopods that rival the size of some sharks and even whales.

Second, many are not that simple either.  Some cephalopods are quite intelligent and have shown they can solve problems to reach their food.

But beautiful they are, and the colors and shapes are controlled by their DNA.  Just amazing.

 

There are possibly as many as 150,000 different species of mollusks.  These species are divided into 8-9 classes (depending which book you read) but for this series on Embracing the Gulf we will focus on only three.  First up – the snails (Class Gastropoda).

 

There are an estimated 60,000 – 80,000 species of gastropods, second only to the insects.  They are typically called snails and slugs and are different in that they produce a single coiled shell.  The shell is made of calcium carbonate (limestone) and is excreted from tissue called the mantle.  It covers their body and continues to grow as they do.  The shell coils around a linear piece of shell called the columella.  Most coil to the right, but some to the left – sort of like right and left-handed people.  There is an opening in the shell where the snail can extend much of its body – this is called the aperture – and some species can close this off with a bony plate called an operculum when they are inside.  Some snail shells have a thin extension near the head that protects the siphon – a tube that acts like a snorkel drawing water in and out of the body.

The black siphon can be seen in this crown conch crawling across the sand.
Photo: Franklin County Extension.

They have pretty good eyes and excellent sense of smell.  They possess antenna, which can be tactile or sense chemicals in the water (smelling) to help provide information to a simple brain.

 

They are slow – everyone knowns this – but they really don’t care.  Their thick calcium carbonate shells protect them from most predators in the sea… but not all.

 

Their cousins the slugs either lack the shell completely, or they have a remnant of it internally.  You would think “what is the point of an internal shell?” – good question.  But the slugs have another defense – they are poisonous.  Venomous and poisonous are two different things.  Being poisonous means you have a form of toxin within your body tissue.  If a predator eats you – they will get very sick, maybe die.  But you die as well, so… Not too worry, poisonous slugs are brightly colored – a universally understood signal to all predators.

 

There is one venomous snail – the cone snail, of which we have about five species in the Gulf.  They possess a stylet at the tip of their siphon (similar to the worms we have been writing about) which they can use as a dart for prey such as fish.  Many gastropods are carnivores, but some are herbivores, and some are scavengers.

Many shells are found on the beach as fragments. Here you see the fragment of a Florida Fighting Conch.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Most have separate sexes and exchange gametes in a sack called a spermatophore.  Fertilized eggs are often encased in structures that resemble clusters, or chains, of plastic.  These are deposited on the seafloor and the young are born with their shell ready for life.

 

This group is not as popular as a food item as other mollusk but there are some.  The Queen Conch is probably of the most famous of the edible snails, and escargot are typically land snails.  I am not aware of any edible slugs… and that is good thing.

 

Some of the more common snails you will find along our portion of the Gulf of Mexico are:

 

Crown Conch                   Olive                                  Murex                 Banded Tulip

Whelks                              Cowries                             Bonnets              Cerith

Slippers                              Moon                                Oyster Drills       Bubble

 

The most encountered slug is the sea hare.

A common sea slug found along panhandle beaches – the sea hare.

I hope you get a chance to do some shelling – I hope you find some complete ones.  It is addictive!

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the jellyfish

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the jellyfish

I’d like to be a jellyfish… cause jellyfish don’t pay rent…

They don’t walk and they don’t talk with some Euro-trash accent…

Their just simple protoplasm… clear as cellophane

They ride the winds of fortune… life without a brain

 

These lyrics from Jimmy Buffett’s song Mental Floss sort of sums it up doesn’t it.  The easy-going lifestyle of the jellyfish.

Everyone who visits the Gulf coast knows about these guys, but few people… very few… like them.  For most, the term jellyfish signals “pain”, “fear”, and “death”.  The purple flag is flying, and no one wants to enter the water.  Folks from the Midwest call local hotels and condos asking, “when are the jellyfish going to be there?”  It’s understandable.  Who wants to spend their week vacation on the Gulf inside a hotel because you can’t go swimming?

I found this along the shore last winter. These are cannonball jellyfish.

I would almost (…almost) rather be diving with a shark than hundreds of jellyfish.  When you spot them, they are everywhere.  Quietly swarming like ghosts.  You push them off and they appear to move towards you – almost like smoke from a campfire, you can’t get away.

 

They are creepy things.  But amazing too!

As Mr. Buffett’s points out, they are simple “protoplasm”.  Their body is primarily a jelly-like substance called mesoglea – and most of that is water.  If you place a dead jellyfish on your dock and come back that afternoon, you will probably find just a “stain” of where it was – there is almost nothing to them.

 

The “bell” of the jellyfish is mostly mesoglea.  Some jellyfish have thick layers of this, others much thinner.  Some have a small flap of skin along the margins of the bell called the velum which they can undulate and swim – but they are not strong swimmers.  If the tide is going out, swim as they may… their heading out also.

glowing jellyfish

The bell shaped body of a jellyfish with numerous tentacles.

Many species of jellyfish have interesting markings within the bell.  One has a white-colored structure that forms a 4-leaf clover.  Another has red triangles all connecting at the center of the bell.  For many, these structures are the ones that produce the gametes.  Jellyfish reproduce sexually but are hermaphroditic – meaning they produce female eggs and male sperm in the same animal.  There is no physical contact between animals, they just release the gametes into the ocean when they are in thick swarms and wah-la… new jellyfish – many new jellyfish.

 

On the bottom of the bell is a single opening that leads to a single pouch.  This opening is the mouth, and the pouch is called the gastrovascular cavity.  Jellyfish are predators – carnivores.  There are no teeth, and most do not seek their prey – their prey finds them.  Hanging from their bell are the tools of the killing trade, the part of this animal we do not like… the tentacles.  Some tentacles can extend for several feet beyond the bell, others you can hardly notice them – but this is where the killing happens.

 

Along the tentacles there are small capsules called cnidoblasts which contain small cells called nematocyst.  These nematocyst contain a coiled dart which at the end contains a drop of venom.  There is a trigger associated with this cell.  The jellyfish does not fire it – instead, the prey bumps the trigger and the nematocyst “fires”.  The drop of venom is injected, along with the hundreds of other nematocysts along the tentacle the fish just bumped.  This venom paralyzes the prey, other tentacles coil around it firing more nematocysts, and the tentacles retract towards the mouth – bingo… lunch.

This box jellyfish was found near NAS Pensacola in November of 2015.
Photo: Brad Peterman

Of course, the same happens when people bump into them.  For us it is painful and unpleasant – but we are not consumed.  That said, some species are quite painful.  Some will force people to the hospital, and some have even killed people.  The Box Jellyfish is the most notorious of these deadly ones.  Known for their habits in Australia, there are at least two species found in the Gulf.  The ones found here are not common, and there are no reported deaths, but they do exist.  The Four-Handed is the one more widespread here.  It actually has eyes, can detect predators and prey and swim towards or away from them, and the male fertilizes the female internally – not your typical jellyfish.

 

The more familiar painful one is the Portuguese Man-of-War.  This creature is more like a sponge in that it is not just one creature but a large “condo” of many.  Some cells are specialized in feeding, these are found on their long tentacles.  Others specialize in reproduction; these are found near the blue colored air bag.  They produce this blueish colored air bag which is exposed above the surface.  The wind pushes on the bag like a sail and this moves the creature across the environment in search of food.  Hanging from the bag are long tentacles which are made up of individuals whose stomachs are all connected.  So, when one group of cells makes contact and kills a prey – they consume it and the tissue is moved through the connecting stomachs to feed the whole colony.  To feed a whole colony, you need a big fish – to kill a big fish, you need a strong toxin, and they have it.  These are VERY painful and have put people in the hospital, some have died.  Some say that the Portuguese man-of-war is not a “true” jellyfish.  This is true in the sense that they belong to a different class of jellyfish.  There are three classes, the Scyphozoans being what we call the “true” jellyfish – Portuguese man-of-wars are not scyphozoans, but rather hydrozoans.

The colonial Portuguese man-of-war.
Photo: NOAA

Another interesting thing about jellyfish, is that they are all not jellyfish-like.  As we just mentioned, there are two other classes and one other phylum of jellyfish-like animals.  Hydrozoans and anthozoans are not your typical jellyfish.  Rather than being bell-shaped and drifting in the ocean looking for food, they are attached to the seafloor and look more like flowers.  Their tentacles are usually smaller but do contain nematocysts.  Their toxin can be strong, some do eat fish, but most have a weaker toxin and feed on very small creatures – some only eat plankton.  These would include the hydra, sea anemones, and the corals.  As mentioned above, this also would include the Portuguese man-of-war.

 

Comb jellies are those jellies that drift in the currents and have no tentacles.  We commonly collect them and toss them at each other.  When I was growing up, we referred to them as “football jellies” because of this.  The reason they do not sting is not because they do not have tentacles (some species do) but rather they do not have nematocyst and cannot.  Rather they have special cells called colloblast that produce a drop of sticky glue at the end which they use to capture prey.  Not having toxins, they cannot kill large prey but rather feed on smaller creatures like plankton and each other – they are cannibals.  For this reason, they are in a whole different phylum.

The nonvenmous comb jelly.
Photo: Bryan Fluech

 

 

The jellyfish of the Gulf are a nuisance at times but are actually amazing creatures.

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the sponges

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the sponges

We began this series on the Gulf talking about the Gulf itself.  We then moved to the big, more familiar – maybe more interesting animals, the vertebrates – birds, fish, etc.  In this edition we shift to the invertebrates – the “spineless” animals of the Gulf of Mexico.  Many of them we know from shell collecting along the beach, others are popular seafood choices, but most we know nothing about and rarely see.

A spineless Comb Jelly.
Florida Sea Grant

They are numerous, on diversity alone – making up 90% of the animal kingdom.  They may leave remnants behind so that we know they are there.  They may be right in front of our faces, but we do not know what we are looking at.  They are incredibly important.  Providing numerous nutrient transport, and transfer, in the ecosystem – that would otherwise not exist.  They also provide a lot of ecological services that reduce toxins and waste.  One source suggests there are over 30 different phyla and over one million species of invertebrates.  In this series we will cover six major groups and we begin with the simplest of them all… the sponges.

 

For some, you may not know that sponges are actually alive.  For others, you knew this but were not sure what kind of creature it was.  Are they plants? Animals?  Just a sponge?

 

The answer is animal.  Yea…

We usually think of animals as having legs, running around, eating things and defecting in places – the kinds of things that make good animal planet shows.

Sponges…  would not make a great animal planet show.  What are you going to watch?  They appear to be doing nothing.  They sit on the ocean floor… and… well… that’s it, they sit on the ocean floor.  But they actually do a lot.

A vase sponge.
Florida Sea Grant

They are considered animal because (a) their cells lack a cell wall – which plants have, and (b) they are heterotrophic… consumers… they have to hunt their food and cannot make it as plants do.

What do they eat?

Plankton.  Lots of plankton.  Looking at a sponge you would call it one animal, but it is actually a colony of specialized cells working as a unit to survive.  There are cells with flagella, called collar cells, that use these flagella to create currents that “suck” water into the body of the creature.  This is how they collect plankton.  The collar cells live in numerous channels throughout the sponge body connected to small pores all over the service of the sponge.  This is where they get their phylum Porifera.  As the water moves through the channels, the collar cells remove food and specialized cells called choanocytes release reproductive eggs called gemmules. All of the water eventually collects in a cavity, called the gastrovascular cavity where it exists the sponge through a large opening called an osculum.

This is how they eat and reproduce.

The anatomy of a sponge.
Flickr

The matrix, or tissue, of the sponge is held together by small, hard structures called spicules.  It sort of serves as a skeleton for the creature.  In different sponges the spicules are made of different materials, and this is how the creatures are divided into classes.  Some are made of calcium carbonate, like seashells.  Others are made of silica and are “glass-like”, and some made of a softer material called “spongin”, which are the ones we use to take baths with.  Today purchased sponges are synthetic, not natural – but you can still get natural sponges.

 

Many sponges are tiny, others are huge.  They all like seawater – not big fans of freshwater – and many produce mild toxins to defend the from predators.  They do have predators though – hawksbill sea turtles love them.  There is currently a lot of research going on using sponge toxins to kill cancer cells.  Who knows, the cure to some forms of cancer may lie in the cavity of the sponge.

 

Another cool thing about them is that their cavities provide a lot of space for other small creatures in the ocean.  Numerous species can be found in sponge tissue and cavities, utilizing this space as a habitat for themselves.

Florida Sea Grant

They are a major player in the development of reefs in the tropics and, like their counter parts coral, have experienced a decline due to over harvesting and harmful algal blooms.  There are efforts in the Florida Keys to grow new sponge in aquaculture facilities and “re-plant” in the ocean.  In the northern Gulf they are more associated with seagrass beds.

 

These are truly amazing creatures and the more we learn about them, the more amazing they become.

 

 

References:

 

Myriad World of the Invertebrates. EarthLife. https://www.earthlife.net/inverts/an-phyla.html.

New Artificial Reefs for the Florida Panhandle

New Artificial Reefs for the Florida Panhandle

Deployment of the El Dorado as an Artificial Reef

Panama City Dive Center’s Island Diver pulls alongside of the El Dorado supporting the vessel deployment by Hondo Enterprises. Florida Fish and Wildlife crews also are pictured and assisted with the project from recovery through deployment. The 144 foot El Dorado reef is located 12 nautical miles south of St Andrew Pass at 29° 58.568 N, 85° 50.487 W. Photo by L. Scott Jackson.

In the past month, Bay County worked with fishing and diving groups as well as numerous volunteers to deploy two artificial reef projects; the El Dorado and the first of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) reefs.

These sites are in Florida waters but additional opportunities for red snapper fishing are available this year to anglers that book for hire charters with captains holding federal licenses. Federal licensed Gulf of Mexico charters started Red Snapper season June 1st and continue through August 1st. Recreational Red Snapper fishing for other vessels in State and Federal waters is June 11th – July 12th. So booking a federally licensed charter can add a few extra fish to your catch this year.

The conversion of the El Dorado from a storm impacted vessel to prized artificial reef is compelling. Hurricane Michael left the vessel aground in shallow waters. This was in a highly visible location close to Carl Grey Park and the Hathaway Bridge. The Bay County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) acquired the El Dorado, January 14, 2019 through negotiations with vessel owner and agencies responsible for recovery of storm impacted vessels post Hurricane Michael.

The El Dorado was righted and stabilized, then transported to Panama City’s St Andrews Marina by Global Diving with support from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife. Hondo Enterprises, was awarded a contract to complete the preparation and deployment of the vessel for use as an artificial reef.

Reefing the El Dorado provides new recreational opportunities for our residents and tourists. The new reef delivers support for Bay County’s fishing and diving charters continuing to recover after Hurricane Michael. Several local dive charter captains assisted in the towing and sinking of the El Dorado.

The El Dorado was deployed approximately 12 nm south of St. Andrew Bay near the DuPont Bridge Spans May 2, 2019. Ocean depth in this area is 102 feet, meaning the deployed vessel is accessible to divers at 60 feet below the surface.

The Bay County Board of County Commissioners continues to invest in the county’s artificial reef program just as before Hurricane Michael. Additional reef projects are planned for 2019 – 2020 utilizing Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) and Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) funds. These additional projects total over 1.3 million dollars utilizing fines as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Deployments will occur in state waters in sites located to both the east and west of St. Andrew Bay Pass.

Large Crane Deploying Artificial Reef Concrete Module

Walter Marine deploys one of nine super reefs deployed in Bay County’s NRDA Phase I project located approximately 12 nautical miles southeast of the St. Andrew Pass. Each massive super reef weighs over 36,000 lbs and is 15 ft tall. Multiple modules deployed in tandem provides equivalent tonnage and structure similar to a medium to large sized scuttled vessel. Photo by Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.

The first of these NRDA deployments for Bay County BOCC was completed May 21, 2019 in partnership with Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection using a $120,000 portion of the total funding. The deployment site in the Sherman Artificial Reef Permit Area is approximately 12 nm south east of St Andrew Bay Pass at a depth of 78 – 80ft.

Patch Reef # Latitude Longitude
BC2018 Set 1

(6 Super Reefs and  4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 40.202 W
BC2018 Set 2

(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 39.739 W
BC2018 Set 3

(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 39.273 W
BC2018 Set 4

(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 38,787 W

In 2014, Dr. Bill Huth from the University of West Florida, estimated in Bay County the total artificial reef related fishing and diving economic impact was 1,936 jobs, $131.98 million in economic output and provided $49.02 million in income. Bay County ranked #8 statewide in artificial reef jobs from fishing and diving. Bay County ranked #3 in scuba diving economy and scuba diving was 48.4 % of the total jobs related to artificial reefs. Dr. Huth also determine that large vessels were the preferred type of artificial reef for fishing and diving, with bridge spans and material the next most popular. Scuba diving and fishing on artificial reefs contributes significantly to the county’s economic health.

For more information and assistance, contact UF/IFAS Extension Bay County at 850-784-6105 or Bay@ifas.ufl.edu. Follow us on Facebook at http://faceboook.com/bayifas .

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.

This article is also available through the the Panama City New Herald

Underwater Dreaming

Underwater Dreaming

They say that dreams don’t work unless you take action. In the case of some Walton County Florida dreamers, their actions have transpired into the first Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) installation in the United States.  In 2017, the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) partnered to solicit sculpture designs for permanent exhibit in a one-acre patch of sand approximately .7-miles from the shore of Grayton Beach State Park at a depth of 50-60 feet. The Museum gained immediate notoriety and has recently named by TIME Magazine as one of 100 “World’s Greatest Places.” It has also been featured in online and print publications including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Travel & Leisure, Newsweek, The New York Times, and more.

Seven designs were selected for the initial installation in summer of 2018 including: “Propeller in Motion” by Marek Anthony, “Self Portrait” by Justin Gaffrey, “The Grayt Pineapple” by Rachel Herring, “JYC’s Dream” by Kevin Reilly in collaboration with students from South Walton Montessori School, “SWARA Skull” by Vince Tatum, “Concrete Rope Reef Spheres” by Evelyn Tickle, and “Anamorphous Octopus” by Allison Wickey. Proposals for a second installation in the summer of 2019 are currently being evaluated.

The sculptures themselves are important not only for their artistic value, but also serve as a boon to eco-tourism in the area. While too deep for snorkeling, except perhaps on the clearest of days, the UMA is easily accessible by SCUBA divers.  The sculptures are set in concrete and contain no plastics or toxic materials.  They are specifically designed to become living reefs, attracting encrusting sea life like corals, sponges and oysters as well large numbers and varieties of fish, turtles and dolphins.  This fulfills SWARA’s mission of “creating marine habitat and expanding fishery populations while providing enhanced creative, cultural, economic and educational opportunities for the benefit, education and enjoyment of residents, students and visitors in South Walton.”

The UMA is a diver’s dream and is in close proximity to other Walton County artificial reefs. There are currently four near-shore snorkel reefs available for snorkeling and nine reefs within one mile of the shore in approximately 50-60 feet of water for additional SCUBA opportunities.  All reefs are public and free of charge for all visitors with coordinates available on the SWARA website (https://swarareefs.org/). Several SCUBA businesses in the area offer excursions to UMA and the other reefs of Walton County.

For more information, please visit the UMA website at https://umafl.org/ or connect via social media at https://www.facebook.com/umaflorida/.

Schools of fish swim by the turtle reef off of Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo credit: University of Florida / Bernard Brzezinski

What’s Up with the Red Tide in the Panhandle?

What’s Up with the Red Tide in the Panhandle?

Red Tide has been a persistent presence in the Panhandle since September and responsible for many reported fish kills and respiratory distress in some people.  Over the past week, red tide was still present in low to medium concentrations in or offshore of Escambia County to Bay County.

This is a picture of a dead 4-inch striped Jack-knife fish, killed by red tide, laying next to a clump of sargassum on the beach in Miramar Beach, Florida.

Jack-knife fish killed by red tide Miramar Beach, Florida

Red tide is a natural occurrence and Florida experienced red tides long before humans settled here.  The tides originate 10-40 miles off shore and winds and currents bring them inshore.  Red tide is fueled by nutrient typically stemming from land-based runoff.

During winter, the northerly winds and southbound currents will push the tide back offshore.  There was hope that Hurricane Michael might help carry the red tide back out to sea. Unfortunately, it seems the nutrient run-off from the storm’s heavy rain or retreating storm surge may have contributed to the intensity and duration of the bloom.

In our economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, the red tide is continuing to take a toll, especially on waterfront businesses.  According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, store-bought and restaurant served shellfish are safe to eat during a red tide bloom because shellfish are monitored for safety and tested for red tide toxins before they are sold. The edible parts of crabs, shrimp and fish are not affected by the red tide organism and can be eaten, but guts should be discarded.

Many remember the local red tide bloom in 2015.  The longest red tide bloom ever recorded lasted 30 months from 1994 to 1997.  Warmer water due to climate change is predicted to cause algae to bloom more often, more intensely, and in more water bodies. It is imperative that we reduce nutrient inputs to our lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal ocean waters today.