Coastal Master Naturalists...

Spartina joins the Sporobolus Family (genus) tree (grass?)

Sporobolus (a somewhat fun word to say) is a widespread genus of grasses commonly referred to as ‘Dropseeds’– a reference to their seed dispersal methods. Species in this genus occur mainly in open habitats such as prairies, savannahs, and roadsides, and the species makeup of this genus was originally based on their morphology and flower arrangements. But as time advances, so does scientific research. Recent studies on this genus, and other closely related genera, have suggested a revised evolutionary history and species makeup. Sporobolus has recently received some new members and this has caused a bit of a stir in the naturalist community.

Photo by Jake Zadik

As with many taxonomic revisions in recent years, molecular studies and construction of new DNA-based phylogenies are the foundation for these recent proposals. Such research has provided parsimonious support for the merging of other closely related genera and an expansion of the genus Sporobolus. In Coastal South Carolina, the most notable plant affected by this proposal is Spartina alterniflora, more commonly known as Smooth Cordgrass.

Acres upon thousands of acres in the Lowcountry are carpeted by Smooth Cordgrass and the ecological and economical importance of this plant is astounding. This plant is adapted to tolerate areas that are frequently inundated by saltwater and, as such, inhabit areas that other plants can seldom grow. This plant is the most dominant piece of vegetation living in the lower intertidal zones of South Carolina salt marshes and it plays several integral roles in this incredibly important ecosystem. To name a few, it aids in erosion control, water filtration, carbon sequestration, and creates a refuge for a variety of organisms. Furthermore, dead and uprooted blades of S. alterniflora make up a large percentage of natural beach debris that facilitate the development of new dunes aiding in beach accretion.

Thank you Spartina alterniflora for helping protect our beautiful barrier islands!

The unique anatomy of Smooth Cordgrass and other species in the genus Spartina, historically led botanists to classify these grasses in their own genus. But, in light of the new phylogenetic research, this classification is being revisited. From DNA analyses, it seems that the genus Spartina and the genus Sporobolus shared a common ancestor more recently than previously suspected. As a result, the genus Spartina was incorporated into the genus Sporobolus following a reclassification in 2014. The scientific name Spartina alterniflora was updated to Sporobolus alterniflorus.

For over two hundred years, Smooth Cordgrass has been referenced in the genus Spartina. As such, it is no surprise that this classification change has been slow to catch on in Coastal South Carolina. The old genus is still widely used, recognized and accepted in many naturalist and botanist communities. However, it is important to note that taxonomic changes are simply a reflection of an improved understanding of a group of organisms. As research methods advance, we may see reclassifications of many of our favorite and familiar organisms. These changes can only serve to aid in our management and conservation of the natural world.



Jake Zadik has always been fascinated with the outdoors and consistently seeks ways to better comprehend this beautiful chaotic mess that we call nature. Currently, he works as a CCPRC Interpretive Aide, Environmental Educator at the Kiawah Island Nature Program and is a Project Coordinator for a company that facilitates the development of citizen science projects. Furthermore, he has participated in a number of research projects and environmental surveys throughout the Charleston area as well as projects taking place as far away as Ecuador.

SCORE Oyster Reef Build

It’s not every day that a naturalist volunteers to help construct a multi-family housing project on the banks of one of our precious waterways. On April 16th, I had the pleasure of working with several other CMNA members to construct one of the newest residential hotspots in the Charleston area.

Mesh bags chock full of oyster shells and ready for reef building.

Our adventure began at the Wappoo Cut Boat Landing off Folly Road, where I enjoyed a mini-reunion with my spring 2018 Master Naturalist classmates (Bob, one of our Lauras, and Adam). Many other volunteers joined us, including a group of Starbucks employees working together on a community service project. Even CMNA President Rick Calvert was one of our construction co-conspirators.

We gathered together in the shadow of a trailer overflowing with mesh bags packed full of Crassostrea virginica shells, better known as the eastern oyster.

Our general contractors were staff members from the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement (SCORE) program, and our assignment was to build a new home for juvenile oysters in Wappoo Creek. SCORE staff explained the two main components of their program, providing oyster shell recycling centers where consumers and restaurants drop off discarded shells, and working with community volunteers to bag and restore habitats using those shells. Oyster larvae float freely in tidal waters, and they must attach to a substrate to survive. While they can attach to many different surfaces, oyster shells seem to be their favorite spot for putting down roots.

I’ve worked on the bagging end of the process a couple of times, so I was excited to see how the bags were used to create habitats. After a brief training on the most efficient technique for a human chain, we transferred hundreds of shell bags from trailer to boat within a matter of minutes.

We set off from the landing in three boats, hoping for fair winds and following seas. The hum of our trusty Evinrude serenaded us on a short trip west on Wappoo Creek, toward the Stono River. Upon arrival at the reef site, we confronted that old nemesis of kayakers and oystermen alike, pluff mud.

The SCORE team had brought along several wooden boards and we filed out onto the planks, teetering like a gang of mutinous pirates. We formed our human chain once again, emptying the cargo boat and stacking the shell bags side-by-side along the edge of the water. Spikes of rebar were used on the reef border to hold the bags in place.

Once the team completed placing the shell bags, we turned our attention to a little landscaping with smooth cordgrass seedlings behind the reef. It was only a matter of time before some roustabout whipped us into a frenzy, mentioning the recent scientific name change for our beloved cordgrass from Spartina alterniflora to Sporobolus alterniflorus. There with our lungs full of the pungent aroma of pluff mud, many made a solemn oath which echoed our state motto. While we breathe, we call it Spartina.

We completed our work and in less than two hours, we had constructed a reef which would serve as habitat for juvenile oysters and many other marine species. We had also created a barrier against erosion to help that area of salt marsh thrive. Once the oysters move in, the bivalves’ natural water filtration skills will help clean the creek as well.

We packed up our supplies, slogged sore muscles across the pluff mud, and boarded our vessels for the return trip to the landing. All souls and most soles accounted for.

If you’d like to get involved, SCORE conducts reef builds throughout the summer and they are always looking for volunteers. You can find more information at, including a link to the upcoming events calendar.

Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET)

Calling All (Former) SEANETers: the Data Portal is back online!

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) was designed to bring together interdisciplinary researchers and members of the public (i.e. citizen scientists) in a long-term collaborative effort to identify and mitigate threats to seabirds along the Atlantic seaboard. Several members of the Master Naturalist community received training in 2013 or later and embarked on a volunteer initiative to monitor a section of beach twice a month to report any beached (dead) seabirds.

Sometime in 2017, the online data portal went offline, and volunteers were left with a choice: 1) continue to collect data and hold it indefinitely until an online system emerged or 2) suspend their efforts until an online system emerged. I’m happy to report that an online data portal is now available, and SEANET is now a part of the community!

For existing SEANETers, please visit to create a free account and then “Join” the SEANET project. You can then resume your SEANET volunteering. For more information or to find out how to become a new SEANET volunteer, visit the project website at

Junior Naturalist Scholarships

Each year, the CMNA looks forward to supporting environmental education opportunities for Junior Naturalists with our scholarship fund. Through the generosity of CMNA member donations, we have provided needs-based support to several children over the years in the county park’s fall Junior Naturalist series and Beidler Forest’s Swamp Camp. New for 2019, we are expanding our reach to sponsor the 6-part Junior Naturalist series for CCPRC’s Discovery Summer Camp on Johns Island.

Each week, up to 25 campers will attend the series with topics including insects, barrier islands, the salt marsh, and the various animals and plants found within the Charleston County Parks. This partnership with CCPRC allows CMNA to reach more children with scholarships than in past years. Thank you to the CCPRC Environmental Education Team for devising an innovative approach to providing Junior Naturalist opportunities to more children in the community.

Litter Sweeps

It’s addictive. It’s dirty. It happens everywhere, often in broad daylight, and it makes you feel good. I’m talking about picking up trash.

Everywhere I look I see litter. It seems to be getting worse here in our beautiful neck of the woods. I don’t think I am seeing things either. It’s a logical conclusion to draw that more people equals more litter. The more people part of that equation is fairly irrefutable. Have you driven around Charleston lately? We are full. And I suppose so are our trash cans, just take a look around.

I have taken part in two litter sweeps with my fellow CMN’s recently and just signed up for a third. At our last meeting, with seven or so volunteers actively recovering garbage from the marsh off of the Stono River on John’s Island, we picked up:

Total items removed: 1458
Top 5 items: plastic bottles (696), Styrofoam (178), glass bottles (119), Al cans (117), shoes/clothes (60)
Total plastics: 913

We were picking up trash actively for about an hour! I picked up 300 plastic bottles alone.

It’s an uphill battle to be sure, but an important one nonetheless. Litter sweeps are also a great way to meet your compadres in the CMNA. On our last sweep I connected with an individual and through that individual I was able to get signed up to do some volunteer work with DNR on their research boats, something I’ve been very excited to try out.

Even if it’s a couple of plastic bottles or some styrofoam junk, pick it up! The journey of a clean planet begins with one chicken tray.

Read more about the #trashtag hashtag!