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Melampus Madness

Kass lab Melampus

Kass installs her mesocosm testing the effects of Melampus snails on cordgrass decomposition

Time is flying by and we are already halfway through the field season! I am Kassandra Baron and I am an undergraduate student from Washington & Jefferson College studying Biology. Here at the Marshview field station I work as a research undergraduate student. This summer I am working on the TIDE project as well as carrying out several experiments with an invertebrate commonly found on the high marsh, Melampus.

Coffee bean snail

Melampus bidentatus, the coffee bean snail

Melampus bidentatus, commonly known as the Coffee Bean snail, is a terrestrial air-breathing snail in the family Ellobiidae. This species is relatively small, averaging 9 to 12 mm when fully grown. As a detritivore located on the high marsh, Melampus commonly feeds on Spartina patens and the algae that grows on the stems of these plants. The majority of my project is researching the effects of Melampus density on Spartina patens litter processing. While exploring density effect, I am also pursuing the question on whether or not there is a fertilizer effect. In both of my experiments we are using dead Spartina patens from Sweeney and West creeks and Melampus. Sweeney creek serves as our enriched creek and West creek is used as our reference. By using these two different creeks, we can compare the effect of Melampus on mass loss.

Caging a pre-weighed amount of dead cordgrass and a particular number of snails will help reveal how coffee bean snails contribute to detritus decomposition in the marsh

Caging a pre-weighed amount of dead cordgrass and a particular number of snails will help reveal how coffee bean snails contribute to cyclical plant decomposition in the marsh

To better understand whether or not Melampus increases the decomposition rate of Spartina litter that has been nutrient enriched, two experiments were set up. One experiment takes into consideration natural environmental factors and Melampus in its natural habitat. In this experiment, I used decomposition bags made of window screen and placed a known amount of dead Spartina patens and different densities of snails in each bag. These bags were then deployed out in the field at both creeks each containing litter from that creek. For the second experiment, I set up petri dishes. Half of these dishes contained litter from Sweeney creek and the other half West. Each dish had a known mass of detritus and a random density, or number, of Melampus individuals.

At the end of the field season, roughly 8 weeks from now, I will be measuring the mass loss, nitrogen content, phenolic content, particle size, and snail growth for both experiments. All together I hope to gain a better understanding of the importance of this snail on decomposition and determine if nitrogen enrichment and density play a role in the process of decomposition.


My REU project and the joy of being able to do science in my hometown

My name is Drew Collins, and I’m a rising junior at the University of New England studying Marine Biology. I’m one of the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) Interns working out of the Marshview Farm field station on the TIDE project.

As part of the REU program, interns must plan, orchestrate, and present the findings of a scientific study of their choosing (all within ten weeks!). We are not alone in this process however, as we have an incredible network of scientists working out of Marshview. The TIDE PIs (Principal Investigators, lead researchers) have been invaluable, giving us an endless stream of knowledge and advice they have gained through their many research projects and scientific endeavors. I know this advice will continue to help and guide me long after this summer is over. The RAs (research assistants) provide both advice and lend a hand with the lab work and fieldwork these projects require. In addition, all the REUs help each other, surveying creeks, gathering and counting snails, measuring gr ass clippings, and labeling everything.

Nathalie creek bank

Nathalie taking geomorphic measurements on one study creek such as point vegetation cover, bank crack widths, and creek depth.

My project is a joint project with Nathalie Moore. Together we are studying how the changing landscape of the marsh creeks is affecting mummichogs’ (a species of small fish that lives in the marsh) access to their invertebrate prey in the upper marsh. In order to get a large sample size of creeks, Nathalie and I have had to travel all over the Rowley and Ipswich salt marshes, exploring creeks not often visited. Once we had chosen and surveyed our creeks, we now must take measurements on the fish and the invertebrates at each creek, so we can see what kind of relationship there is between the landscape of the creek, the types and quantity of invertebrates, and the size, mass and behavior of the mummichogs living there.

Nathalie at Metcalf creek

Nathalie uses an old downed telephone pole to cross a ‘mosquito ditch’ while working at Metcalf creek

This internship has been a really exciting opportunity for me specifically, because the areas we study are practically in my backyard. I live just 10 minutes from Marshview, and I grew up here on the Great Marsh. To be able to do real science on these salt marshes, which have always held a special place in my heart has been a truly magical experience.

Two undergraduate botanists kick off the field season with Spartina measurements

Hello TIDE enthusiasts! We, Caitlin and Frankie, are excited to be writing the first blog post of the field season. We are rising seniors at Bryn Mawr College. While Caitlin is a seasoned marsh expeditionist returning for her third summer, Frankie is excited to start her first summer here at TIDE. The marsh has been treating us well these first few weeks, and has welcomed us with a mixture of cold/rainy and hot/sunny days.

REUs' first day

Not even cold and rainy weather can keep the REUs away from tank fills at Sweeney Creek

This summer, we will both continue to work with the plants that inhabit the Plum Island Marsh here at TIDE. Our focus is to compare the phenology of Tall Form Spartina alterniflora (TSA) to genetic analysis conducted last year. We will continue to take clip plots of the five main marsh plants, TSA, Short Form Spartina alterniflora (SSA), Distichlis spicata (DS), and Spartina patens (SP) in order to determine changes in plant morphology and density between the fertilized and unfertilized creeks. We will also measure gas fluxes, including methane, CO2 and water vapor, to investigate differences in plant physiology across the long term fertilized Sweeney Creek and the unfertilized West Creek.

During our short time here, we have also had the opportunity to assist with other projects, as well as attend and present a poster at the New England Botanical Society’s 120th anniversary conference. We had a great time there and were excited to be able to visit another one of the Seven Sister’s, Smith College, who hosted the conference. We look forward to collaborate with the other REUs and further develop our understanding of essential marsh systems. Flume Netting is the next big project coming up this week, and we have begun to move the nets to more appropriate locations on the marsh.

Caitlin and Frankie measuring tall form Spartina alterniflora

Caitlin and Frankie measure TSA in their flux collars at Sweeney Creek. Height measurements will be taken twice each month in all of the collars at both Sweeney and West.

Flux collar set up

Setting up the light flux chambers for measurement at Sweeney Creek

Salt marshes as unsung heroes

Clubhead creek, photo credit:  Sarah Wilkins

Clubhead creek, photo credit: Sarah Wilkins

Marshes are quiet, unassuming ecosystems that do a lot for us. They provide protection from storms, they produce animals that we like to eat or watch, and they give us wonderful places to look out upon while watching the sunrise (or set on the West Coast). WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station, highlighted salt marshes last week in their Living Lab segment. Linda Deegan, the lead Principal Investigator was a part of the discussion. If you want to learn about salt marshes, this is a good place to start so give a listen.

The TIDE does not ebb

An intern leaps for joy on the TIDE Project. Photo: DS Johnson

An intern leaps for joy on the TIDE Project. Photo: DS Johnson

It’s official: The TIDE Project has been re-funded by the National Science Foundation until 2016.

The TIDE Project will continue its fertilization experiments to look at the effect of chronic nutrient enrichment of salt marshes. We will focus on our most compelling finding to date: nutrients can lead to marsh loss. This result is compelling because while scientists have identified a number of causes of marsh loss, nutrients had never been identified until now. In that vein, we will focus on three major questions going forward:

The author contemplates, what's causing the marsh to fall apart? What will it look like in the future? How will that affect marsh benefits to humans?

The author contemplates, what’s causing the marsh to fall apart? What will it look like in the future? How will that affect marsh benefits to humans? Photo: Konner Lockfield

1) What are the biological mechanisms leading to marsh loss?
We hypothesize that changes in microbial activity (leading to increased decomposition) and reductions in root biomass have led to less cohesive creek banks, thus making them susceptible to physical forces and slumping. We will test our biological hypotheses to understand how nutrients can lead to marsh loss.

2) How does marsh loss affect ecosystem services?
All ecosystems provide benefits to humans and those benefits are called ‘ecosystem services’ by scientists. Two services provided by marshes include fisheries support and pollution control (i.e., nutrient removal). We will test the hypothesis that marsh loss reduces marsh ecosystem services by reducing the ability of the marsh to produce forage fish (the mummichog Fundulus heteroclitus) and to remove nutrients. 

3) What is the eventual shape of the marsh with chronic nutrient enrichment?
What we have seen in the short-term is marsh loss that has led to sharp scarps (walls) which can affect a number of marsh functions (and in turn marsh services). It is unknown, however, if the marsh edge will continue to erode or stabilize in a different configuration (say, a low sloping edge). We will monitor changes in the geomorphology of the tidal creeks to predict the trajectory of these changes. 

Collectively, the TIDE Project will answer interesting scientific questions while simultaneously addressing the critically important issue of the loss of marshes and the benefits they provide to humans (storm protection, pollution control, fisheries production, beauty).

The TIDE Project is led by Dr. Linda Deegan of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). The team includes Dr. Sergio Fagherazzi (Boston University), Dr. Jen Bowen (UMASS-Boston), Dr. Tom Mozdzer (Bryn Mawr), Dr. Bruce Peterson (MBL), Dr. Anne Giblin (MBL), Dr. Jimmy Nelson (MBL) and Dr. David Johnson (MBL).

Like the salt marsh itself, the TIDE Project has been productive hosting almost 150 scientists, 70% of which have been young scientists, publishing over 40 scientific articles, and contributing to numerous outreach activities. We look forward to another set of productive years. 

Thank you to the readers for all of your support. To learn more about the TIDE Project, go to our project site:

David Samuel Johnson is a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory and loves spineless animals.

TIDE Scientists inducted into AAAS – Part II

From L to R: Jane Tucker, Anne Giblin, and Sam Kelsey

From L to R: Jane Tucker, Anne Giblin, and Sam Kelsey

Anne’s recent election into AAAS is well-deserved, and if there were a companion award for outstanding achievements in kindness, generosity, and commitment to others, she would rightfully be awarded that, too.   I have had the privilege of working closely with Anne for over 20 years, and I should know.

Anne Giblin “speaks “ biogeochemistry, thermodynamics, biology, physical chemistry… really all the “hard” sciences…as a first language.  They seem to be part of her innate intelligence.     But she is not a desk scientist.   She loves to be in the lab, or even better, out in the field conducting experiments or collecting samples.   Adverse field conditions are her forte!    She is not stopped by freezing temperatures or clouds of mosquitoes on the North Slope of Alaska, nor by tropical heat, “no-see-ums” or scorpion stings in Panama.   She does not let little things like utter darkness in the cold depths  of Adirondack  lakes  or a blanket of sewage sludge on the bottom of Boston Harbor dampen her enthusiasm for collecting more mud and adding dives to her SCUBA log.   She does not send her students or employees out to do this work for her….she jumps in first.   All of this to keep adding pieces to the puzzle of element cycling in sediments, particularly with respect to nitrogen, carbon, and her first love, sulfur.  

Hard work is often matched by good cheer. A long day with the PIE-LTER team in the marsh at Plum Island, in itself fun, is routinely followed by a good meal (often prepared by Anne),   a good local brew (often provided by Anne), and good stories (often told by Anne).   Over the years, these days and stories and Anne’s optimism have become encapsulated by some memorable lines, now used affectionately by the team.  Three of the classics are:  “Done by noon!” (as in, “It won’t take long, we’ll be ….”), “That’s not thunder, those are jets!” (at next occurrence, accompanied by a bright flash of light) , and “No herics!” (i.e. heroics… I mentioned Anne’s first language is science, not English, didn’t I? It’s really the only thing I can help her with!).  

Sure, Anne has the necessary stats on her CV that attest to her accomplishments as a scientist.  But the best testament of her success may be that, in an increasingly difficult funding climate, and at an all soft-money, independent research laboratory, Anne has kept herself and her team funded for over 25 years.  It is tribute to Anne as a mentor, colleague, and friend, that we have all wanted to stay.

Jane Tucker is a Research Assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

TIDE Scientists inducted into AAAS

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This weekend, Dr. John Fleeger, a former TIDE Principal Investigator (PI), and Dr. Anne Giblin, a current TIDE PI are being inducted as a member of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS), known to us scientists as Triple-A S, because we’re too busy for real words.  AAAS is like the Hall of Fame for scientists and it’s a big deal.  We at the TIDE Project are incredibly proud of John and Anne’s accomplishment.  It is well-deserved.

In this post I will highlight John.  In the next, Anne.  

I could list many of John’s accolades including his 150 publications in the scientific literature including topics from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to carbon sequestration in the deep ocean to community ecology of very small crustacean in the dirty, dirty mud to studying the Plum Island marshes here on the TIDE Project.  I could highlight his wonderful teaching career at Louisiana State University spanning over 30 years.  But what I’d rather do is talk about John as a mentor.  My mentor, who guided me to my Ph.D.  

John’s mentoring style can be summed up easily: his door was always literally open.  And no matter the crazy nattering that spewed from my lips, he looked at the floor while nodding and waiting for me to finish.  Then we would discuss.  He never said my ideas were stupid, though he gently said they needed more ‘development.’  

And he was patient.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard him say without annoyance “Again David…” meaning that he already told what he was about to say and he was gently reminding me.  

I appreciated how quickly he made comments on my scientific manuscripts.  Well, how quickly he massacred them.  My words were slain without mercy for their wrongness and their bodies littered the battlefield of my manuscript.  It frustrated me because I prided myself as an excellent writer.  But academic writing has its own style and language and John was teaching. Today I’m a better writer because of the time he took.    

One Saturday morning in Baton Rouge I was at the scope sorting samples.  John came in with a draft of my research proposal that he massacred.  He asked me, “David, what are you trying to say here?”  Then before I had a chance to answer, he looked at the draft and said with rare exasperation, “Do you even know what you’re trying to say?”  I started to say something, but said, “Well no.”  And then he took the time to help me start over. 

I still seek John’s advice today on my manuscripts.    

The following is from the Acknowledgements of my dissertation:  “In 2003, the brave or foolhardy Dr. John Fleeger, with his nodding head and seemingly infinite patience that I tested more than once took in my independent and sometimes irascible spirit and navigated it down a tortuous, yet productive path.  I thank him for reading (and re-reading and re-reading) every word I’ve written as a graduate student, for swatting and cursing mosquitoes with me in the marsh, and for always having his door and mind open.”  

Five years later, those words, unmassacred by John’s pen, still ring true. 

Congratulations John.  Your induction into AAAS is well-deserved on many levels.  


 David Samuel Johnson is a Principal Investigator on the TIDE Project.  A version of this blog post first appeared on David’s blog, New Leaf.