Archive for the ‘College News’ Category

Marine Ecosystem Health

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Seaweed

Understanding the biodiversity of bacteria associated with marine algae that contribute to marine ecosystem health is the focus of a study led by three University of Maine researchers.

Susan Brawley, a professor of plant biology in the School of Marine Sciences and a cooperating professor in the School of Biology and Ecology, is leading the three-year project. At UMaine, Brawley is working with John Singer, a professor of microbiology, and Benildo de los Reyes, a professor of biological sciences.

The three-year study is a collaborative research project with Hilary Morrison at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and is funded by a more than $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation — $986,515 to UMaine and $480,016 to MBL.

“The macroalgal microbiome in space and time — maintaining primary producers in the Atlantic rocky intertidal zone,” will focus on interactions between microbes and intertidal macroalgae, and how their relationships change in response to natural and human-driven stresses.

Intertidal macroalgae, or seaweeds, provide shelter and food to many invertebrates and young fishes. Although much is known about how intertidal algae react to natural stresses, little is known about their associated bacteria and how these bacteria react to those stresses. Past studies found that some macroalgae disintegrate after bacteria are removed, suggesting the bacteria are essential to the algae’s health, according to the researchers.

The study will examine genetic, taxonomic and functional aspects of the biodiversity of bacteria associated with seaweeds that are important to the health of marine ecosystems. It will determine how the bacteria change depending on the season, position within the intertidal zone and latitudinal range, the researchers say.

The researchers say little is known about how macroalgal microbiomes change in space and time, and they hope the study will serve as an important trans-Atlantic baseline of the microbiomes’ biodiversity.

The project is one of 12 studies funded by NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity Program. A total of $23 million was invested with contributions from NSF’s Directorates for Biological Sciences and Geosciences, the Sao Paulo Research Foundation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, according to the foundation.

The Dimensions of Biodiversity Program differs from traditional biodiversity research that focuses on one ecosystem by integrating multiple aspects into research projects and offering opportunities to make advances in understanding the generation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity, the NSF states.

“This year’s portfolio of projects will accelerate our understanding of biodiversity across disciplines and across scales of time and space,” Penny Firth, director of NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, says in a press release. “Through this program, we’re witnessing a transformation in our ability to bridge scientific approaches and perspectives.”

The research will fill in gaps in biodiversity knowledge, Firth says. It also has the potential for significant effects on agriculture, fuel, manufacturing and health.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Preserving Biodiversity

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Falkland Islands

Learning more about the biodiversity of the Falkland Islands and what can be done to preserve it is the focus of a planned trip for three University of Maine researchers.

Jacquelyn Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology in the University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute (CCI), is leading the fieldwork that will be completed from Dec. 4–22 on the small, remote group of islands about 300 miles east of South America.

Gill will travel with two graduate students — Kit Hamley, who is pursuing a master’s degree in quaternary studies at CCI, and Dulcinea Groff, a doctoral student of ecology and environmental science in the School of Biology and Ecology and CCI, who also is part of a two-year fellowship called Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) in Adaptation to Abrupt Climate Change (A2C2).

The researchers will study the islands’ environmental history throughout the last 20,000 years to establish a baseline for conservation efforts, and to understand the effects climate change and human land use have on the area’s biodiversity, according to Gill.

“The Falklands are home to some of the most important penguin rookeries in the world, and a number of species not found anywhere else,” Gill says. “Sadly, this biodiversity is at risk due to a number of threats. Climate change and sea level rise threaten critical habitat already degraded by sheep grazing, and offshore oil drilling is scheduled to begin in the next couple of years.”

The researchers hope to learn more about when humans arrived on the islands and what the ecosystem was like before their arrival. They want to research the threats facing the Falklands’ wildlife — climate change, sea level rise, overgrazing, tourism and offshore drilling — and help residents develop sustainable practices in sheep grazing, eco-tourism and fishing that would benefit the economy in addition to wildlife, she says.

The researchers will collect data from locals, as well as materials, including cores from peat bogs, ponds and lagoons, that we will be shipped to the U.S. and analyzed in UMaine labs. The cores contain records of past climate change, fire history and species composition, Hamley says.

The team plans to travel around the islands, visiting penguin rookeries, including the world’s largest rockhopper penguin colony, according to Gill.

Groff’s Ph.D. research will focus on the sensitivity of the penguin-tussac grass relationship to abrupt climate change since the end of the last ice age.

The native grass provides habitat for penguins and other seabirds and marine mammals and relies on nutrients provided from the animals’ waste. The relationship may be threatened by climate change’s effect on the ocean food web, which would affect the nutrients the animals bring to land. Sheep grazing has also reduced the plant’s presence, according to Gill.

While in the Falklands, Groff will collect sediment cores from several locations. She will study pollen and seabird guano, or waste, within the cores.

“By looking at the records in these cores I will be able to reconstruct how penguin and tussac grass populations have fluctuated through time, under different climatic conditions, especially during times when it is known that climate changed within a short time span,” Groff says.

She also will collect environmental samples including plants and soil to learn more about how tussac grass uses nutrients from penguin guano.

“The overall theme of my project is what I call a marine-terrestrial linkage,” Groff says. “The marine-terrestrial linkage is the connection of nutrients originating in the marine ecosystem that are transferred to the terrestrial ecosystem. The soil in the region is very nutrient poor, which makes nutrients coming from the marine ecosystem very important.”

Groff hopes her research will be used to help predict what will happen to the island’s wildlife and vegetation in the event of a future abrupt climate change scenario.

Hamley’s research will focus on the Falkland Islands wolf, or warrah, a fox-sized carnivore that was the first canid to go extinct in the historic record and was found only on the archipelago, according to Gill.

Hamley will look into whether indigenous people brought the warrah to the Falklands before Europeans arrived.

“Before the warrah was hunted to extinction in the 1870s, the islands were home to no other terrestrial mammals, and had no human inhabitants, raising the question of how and when the wolves first got to the islands, which are separated from mainland Patagonia by 600 km [about 373 miles] of ocean,” Hamley says. “They would have either had to swim, cross a theoretical land or ice bridge — which to date has not been shown to have been present — during periods of lower sea level, drift across on an ice chuck or log, or perhaps be transported via canoe by early humans.”

At this point, no archaeological record has been discovered in the Falkland Islands to definitively indicate that humans were there before European arrival, according to Hamley. She will use the same core samples as Groff to look at charcoal within them to determine if there was a human presence in the Falkland Islands before Europeans arrived.

Hamley will visit sites where warrah bones have been found to look for human artifacts. She will also visit a local museum to take samples of warrah bones for carbon dating.

The islands are home to less than 3,000 residents, according to Gill, and the main economies are fishing, sheep and wool, and tourism, with offshore oil drilling expected in the next couple of years. The climate is windy, cool and damp year-round.

“The Falklands are a fascinating place — home to biodiversity found nowhere else on the planet, and yet they’ve had a long history of human impacts,” Gill says, citing as examples the arrival of the warrah as a native predator, early whaling years, sheep ranching and the Falklands War that left large areas roped off with land mines.

“The past has thrown a lot at the wildlife of the Falklands,” she says. “The future has even more in store, and it’s critical that we get a baseline sense of the biodiversity and how sensitive it is to global change.”

Gill says the islands have a lot in common with the Gulf of Maine, including potential threats to seabirds due to climate change and land use. She says researchers can benefit from studying both areas.

To help fund the $20,000 trip, Hamley and Groff have created and launched a crowdfunding campaign through Experiment.com. The students hope to raise $10,000 in 35 days.

“We started this initiative because we feel this project has the potential to be successful in the crowdfunding realm as it deals with a lot of issues that people care deeply about; climate change, loss of unique biodiversity, conservation and human history,” Hamley says.

Gill says while she is applying for traditional funding sources, there are a lot of alternative methods such as crowdfunding to kick start new projects.

“Crowdfunding also provides the public with a direct connection to science so they can feel like they’re closely connected to the research,” she says. “You’re not just funding my students’ exciting research, you’re also investing in them as future scientists and conservation leaders, who are trained right here at the University of Maine.”

Groff says those who contribute to the campaign will be able to follow the team’s updates during fieldwork and in the lab when they process the cores.

The Falkland Islands research is part of a new partnership between the CCI and the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), a U.K. organization in the Falklands.

“SAERI approached the Climate Change Institute to develop a partnership, as they are keenly interested in developing research in climate change in particular,” Gill says. “We’re a world leader in climate change research, so there was a natural connection there. Most of SAERI’s expertise is in marine sciences, so they’re excited to have folks working on land.”

Donations to the crowdfunding campaign can be made online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Oceanographer Tracks Gulf of Maine Changes From Orono Lab

Friday, October 31st, 2014

satellite imageAndrew Thomas has a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf of Maine from his lab in Aubert Hall at the University of Maine in Orono.

The oceanography professor directs the University of Maine Satellite Oceanography Data Lab, which receives daily real-time high-resolution data from NASA’s meteorological satellites.

In this Sept. 27, 2014 satellite image of the Gulf of Maine, Thomas observes several points of interest, most notably the contrasting green summer foliage near the coast and to the south and the developing fall foliage in northwest regions.

He also points to cumulus clouds (concentrated white dots), cirrus clouds (white wisps) and color patterns in the ocean. At the head of the Bay of Fundy, huge tides stir considerable suspended sediment and the water appears brown. Greener ocean waters are indicative of shallow banks and phytoplankton (microscopic plants). Clearest ocean waters are blue.

The images and the collected data, including sea surface temperature and ocean chlorophyll concentrations, allow Thomas to track developing and long-term changes in the ocean, including the impact of water temperature variability on the number and distribution of fish as well as summer algae blooms.

Thomas says tools can be developed for management in the face of those changes.

The lab is part of the University of Maine Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Applications — a cross-disciplinary initiative funded by UMaine and NASA’s Earth Sciences Division).

For more information and to view additional satellite images and data, visit seasurface.umaine.edu.

UMaine, NOAA Officials Formalize Partnership, Announce Internship Program

Friday, October 31st, 2014

The University of Maine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture formalized its relationship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) by signing a memorandum of understanding Oct. 30.

Edward Ashworth, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture, and William Karp, NOAA Fisheries Northeast science and research director, met to establish a framework to formally recognize previous research collaborations and help initiate new opportunities between UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences; Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology; School of Biology and Ecology; and NOAA scientists.

The agreement lays the foundation for more collaborative research projects between the institutions as well as increased NOAA participation in graduate projects, undergraduate research internships and mentoring.

“I fully expect that this agreement will strengthen and build upon our history of successful collaboration, increase our collective understanding of the fisheries and ecosystems of the Gulf of Maine, and result in new opportunities to mentor students,” Karp says.

Members of the involved UMaine departments and NOAA Fisheries attended the document signing to discuss future opportunities that could result from the agreement.

A new cooperative undergraduate research internship program also was announced during the meeting. NOAA will fund up to five undergraduate research internships for students at UMaine to work with its staff to experience what it is like to work in the fisheries field.

The memorandum of understanding offers broad guidelines for pursuing mutual interests, and shows that NEFSC and UMaine recognize the need for enhancing research collaborations. The institutions are interested in partnerships that expand cooperation, collaboration and the exchange of ideas related to applied research in the Gulf of Maine, its watersheds and the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf.

“Enhanced collaboration between university and government science enterprises will leverage the strengths of both groups to better understand these ecosystems while training the next generation of scientists,” according to the memo.

Karp directs the NEFSC, a federal research institution. NOAA Fisheries’ mission is to ensure vital and sustainable fisheries, safe seafood, recovery and conservation of protected species, and healthy marine ecosystems. For its part, the center gathers and analyzes data and conducts research to develop ecosystem-level knowledge of marine life in waters off the Northeastern U.S. The center has facilities in Orono, Maine; Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Narragansett, Rhode Island; Milford, Connecticut; and Highlands, New Jersey.

Departments within UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture strive to develop scientific understanding of the Gulf of Maine and its watersheds and marine environment, to integrate and communicate knowledge through interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate studies, and to apply it toward the stewardship of the region’s living resources and its habitats.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Marine Scientist Explores Ecosystem Balancing Act on Caribbean Coral Reefs

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

University of Maine marine scientist Bob Steneck participated in a study that indicates overfishing and climate change have collided to create a new dynamic on Caribbean coral reefs.

The study, led by University of Exeter geographer Chris Perry, was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

It highlights the delicate balance between bioerosion caused by feeding and excavating of bioeroders — sea urchins, sponges and parrotfish — with the natural production of carbonate that occurs on coral reefs.

On healthy coral reefs, bioerosion rates can be high, but more carbonate is typically produced than is lost to biological erosion, say the researchers.

But due to warming seas and ocean acidification, Steneck says rates of carbonate production have slowed on many Caribbean coral reefs and coral cover has declined dramatically since the early 1980s.

Still, he says, marked shifts to states of net coral reef erosion have not widely occurred because bioerosion rates experienced by corals have plummeted in recent years due to disease and overfishing of bioeroders that rasp away limestone.

The dynamics are opposite in Maine, Steneck says, because shell-crushing crabs (green, Jonah and rock crabs) have increased in recent decades.

“Marine ecosystems continue to surprise us both here in Maine and in the Caribbean because the cast of characters and the climate both keep changing,” he says.

The study, says Perry, shows the future health and growth potential of coral reefs is, in part, dependent on rates of coral carbonate production and the species that live in and on them and act to erode carbonate.

If historical levels of bioerosion were applied to today’s Caribbean reefs, researchers say there would be widespread destruction, threatening many of the benefits that reefs provide to society.

“If bioeroding species increase in number, and erosion rates increase relative to carbonate production, then this could spell trouble for many Caribbean coral reefs,” Perry says.

That trouble, says Steneck, would include if “bioeroded reefs lose their breakwater function to protect shorelines and they lose their habitat value for reef fish on which many people depend.”

Management efforts are directed at protecting one group of bioeroders — parrotfish. Although parrotfish erode reef substrate, researchers say an increase in the number of parrotfish will benefit reefs because the advantages they provide by removing fleshy macroalgal cover and promoting coral recruitment outweigh negative effects of substrate erosion.

“In essence, we need to work towards restoring the natural balance of ecological and geomorphic processes on coral reefs,” Perry says. “From a bioerosion perspective that may seem counterintuitive, but these species also play a critical role in maintaining reef health.”

In addition to the University of Exeter in England and the University of Maine, the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Memorial University in Canada, James Cook University in Australia and the University of Queensland in Australia took part in the collaborative study. A Leverhulme Trust International Research Network Grant funded the research.

To read the research paper titled “Changing dynamics of Caribbean reef carbonate budgets: emergence of reef bioeroders as critical controls on present and future reef growth potential” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1796/20142018.full.

To read the release published by University of Exeter, where Perry is a professor in physical geography and director of research for geography: exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_416424_en.html.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777