NCBS Intern Report: Estuarine Ecology

Written by 2019 Summer Intern, Anthony Messina, with host Charlie Martin, Estuarine Ecologist at UF/IFAS NCBS. 

   Intro

During my internship this summer I had the opportunity to work in both freshwater and estuarine environment with Charlie’s amazing graduate students, Scott Alford and Audrey Looby. Every day was an opportunity to learn and an interesting experience.

Boat Days

As someone who is inherently a field-mouse rather than a lab rat, of course, I was brimming with excitement to get out on the water at Cedar Key. With an early 5:00 AM start to the day from Gainesville, we would be out on the water by 7:30 with a gentle sea breeze on our cheek. The days on the boat consisted of two parts: trawling and transacting. In a way, we began our day by casting our nets and hoping for fish; we’d drag our nets along the seagrass bed surveying the benthic fauna, then bring in our haul to measure our catch. Our measurements were usually done in hushed tones so as not to disturb Audrey who would have a microphone in the water to listen for different species of fish. Yep, fish can make sounds and that was a new one to me! Boat days part two meant we could take a break from the summer sun and cool off in the water, though most of the time it was only chest-deep. There was a small learning curve to counting the number of grass stems, their species, and the height of the grass in a square meter area while holding my breath and fighting against the current, but eventually, I got the hang of it. I learned to identify many marine species of plants and animals, and as a bonus, I am no longer too bothered by having things brush against my legs underwater!

Gator Bait

The field days at Lake Apopka with Audrey and her crew involve a lot of hard work setting out fyke nets and trotlines all day on the boat, and usually involved overnight stays in Apopka. Some of our catches have turned out to be quite… interesting. Most of the catches in the fyke net consisted of small minnow-like shiners, grass shrimp, baby bass and a couple catfish, although we did find a Cuban tree frog drowned in our net.

The trotlines actually produced even more interesting finds, like an armored invasive catfish and a large bowfin that—regrettably—got away. Surprisingly, throughout most of our time at Apopka, we didn’t really see any alligators, much to my dismay as an aspiring herpetologist, however, while we were picking up a trotline—positive we had a large fish, we saw what looked to be a turtle’s hindfoot. Well… it was a reptile at least. We had snagged a 5ft alligator by its foot, it looked us in the eye, scared Audrey to the back of the boat, and in a sudden motion while Scott and I tried to shake the hook off it dashed off. It was quite the adrenaline rush for all of us!

 

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