WELCOME TO THE
Congratulations to Anna Albright and Nina Woodard for finishing their M.S. degrees in Biology in August 2022!
Dr. Gittman was featured in the spring 2021 ECU Integrated Coastal Programs newsletter, Coastlines, Faculty Spotlight. To read the newsletter, click here!
Borrowing ecological principles: Effect of substrate orientation and complexity on reef formation- Guest Blog by Nina Woodard
Marine ecologists have long been interested in determining the drivers of population demographics and community structure in ecosystems. Understanding the causes and consequences of recruitment and survival for organisms within a community are important goals of population and community ecology. The rocky intertidal ecosystem is where terrestrial meets marine. It is one of the most physiologically challenging environments for marine organisms. In this zone, ecologists have identified the forces that can shape the distribution of species. When completely submerged, organisms must deal with the harsh waves that could easily remove them, and when it is completely exposed to air, desiccation is an obstacle. This paradigm of the rocky intertidal is what sets the upper and lower distribution for many species and is known as vertical zonation. The stability of a community is highly dependent on the assemblage’s ability to react to these forces, by either resisting or acclimating to change. When orientation and complexity are manipulated, wave energy and solar irradiance, as well as predation, are affected. For example, due to morphological differences, the limpet Acmaea digitalis fares better on horizontal surfaces, while the limpet Acmaea scabra fares better on vertical surfaces. Further, when relocated to a horizontal surface A. scabra seeks refuge from harsh waves in between crevices, indicating the importance of both orientation and structural complexity in this ecosystem. However, determining whether the conceptual understanding of processes driving community assembly in one ecosystem can be used to predict patterns of community assembly in another remains an open challenge in the field of ecology.
Past oyster restoration studies have mostly explored how substrate composition and environmental factors affect oyster settlement and growth. I propose to address whether the orientation of substrates has an effect on the distribution and associated community development within a biogenic reef system. Horizontal surfaces may promote greater oyster settlement, whereas vertical surfaces may promote higher post-settlement growth and survival. Habitat availability and structural complexity may also differ depending on orientation, where the availability of interstitial space could vary. Interactions between orientation and complexity could contribute to biodiversity, creating more places for sessile organisms to reside. Results obtained from this study will fill a knowledge gap regarding the transferability of paradigms from the rocky intertidal system to a biogenic system. As organismal development and habitat complexity are great indicators of reef success, this project could be critical for future management and the results can be applied to large-scale ecosystem restoration projects.
On September 6, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall over Cape Hatteras, NC, as a Category 1 storm. With high speed winds and severe flooding, the effects of Hurricane Dorian were felt by residents across coastal Carolina. To many homeowners returning after the storm dissipated, it felt like a déjà vu of devastation experienced a year before when Hurricane Florence made landfall over Wrightsville Beach, resulting in major flooding and destruction in the surrounding areas.
As major storm events like these become more frequent and intense, coastal residents in North Carolina are investing in ways to protect their properties from damage, including prevention of widespread land loss/erosion as a result of the storms. While multiple options exist to manage erosion, residents tend to opt for a gray, hardened shoreline approach, such as seawalls and bulkheads. However, recently researchers are investigating greener approaches to managing erosion, including the use of living shorelines, which not only have the potential to provide erosion protection, but have a suite of benefits for rebuilding ecosystems. Despite this, widespread implementation of living shorelines is limited, partially due to the lack of research comparing the various shoreline protection options and their broader impacts.
In order to address this, our Research Team at East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, are undertaking a study seeking to better understand how people and habitats are impacted based on different types of shoreline management strategies. The study combines science from multiple disciplines, through geospatial, emerging low-cost remote sensing and aerial mapping technologies, waterfront homeowner surveys and citizen science, to directly inform future coastal management projects and serve as a mechanism educate homeowners on shoreline conservation and management strategies.
As part of the study, our research team has developed an online survey related to people’s experiences during Hurricane Dorian while living on the coast in North Carolina. Coastal residents in New Hanover, Carteret, and Dare County received postcards in the mail inviting them to participate in the study. If you are a resident in one of these counties and would like to participate, please follow the link here to the survey:
Enter your unique QR code listed on your postcard, and complete the survey questions. We are trying to reach as many individuals in the coastal North Carolina area as possible, and appreciate everyone’s input on the matter. If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out to us via our email NCCoastalSurvey@googlegroups.com .
We know that shoreline restoration efforts and hurricanes can change the position and appearance of shorelines, but to what degree? My thesis research centers around both storm impacts and oyster reef nature-based infrastructure, so I was eager to answer this question at my study site in Beaufort, NC. In 2018, our lab and collaborators built 16 oyster reefs to study a) their support of oyster communities and b) their ability to stabilize the eroding salt marsh which lies behind them. Since construction, the reefs have been subjected to four storms (Florence, Michael, Dorian, and Isaias). Facing high ambient rates of erosion with these stressful storms added on, I use two critical tools to explore shoreline change: a real-time kinematic (RTK) GPS and a software program called AMBUR, which stands for Analyzing Moving Boundaries Using R. I collect fine-scale, high-resolution shoreline position data with the RTK-GPS (as seen in the photo prior to landfall of Hurricane Isaias) and upload that data into a GIS software. From there, AMBUR uses R, a powerful statistical computing software, to “talk” to the GIS program, measuring and calculating change in shoreline position over time. Ultimately, I learn a) whether a shoreline is advancing or retreating, and b) the degree of that change. My recent analyses indicate that parts of my study site are retreating by more than 2.5 meters per year – a staggering and worrying rate of change for this critical marsh system (see map). AMBUR is a powerful tool for researchers like me, but also for managers and restoration practitioners. Because it lets one visualize and gain an understanding of the degree to which a system is changing, it can offer hints as to which restoration strategies might be most appropriate at a given site.
Post by: Emory Wellman
Coastal ecosystems are under threat from numerous anthropogenic stressors, resulting in significant habitat losses globally. Restoration can mitigate damage to ecosystems and ensure the recovery and continued sustainment of ecosystem services. However, our understanding of how to restore ecosystems, particularly in coastal regions, to persist and ultimately adapt to the consequences of climate change is lacking. This Special Issue will highlight new opportunities and challenges for restoring coastal ecosystems to be resilient in a changing climate. For this Special Issue, we welcome papers on:
• Assessments of the ability of novel restoration techniques, monitoring approaches, and planning initiatives to bolster the resilience of restored coastal ecosystems;
• Case studies that evaluate the ability of restored coastal ecosystems to respond to changing environmental conditions, including, but not limited to rising sea levels, storm events, ocean acidification, and increasing temperature;
• Reviews of current efforts to include climate change impacts in planning and design of restoration projects; and
• Perspectives on how to restore and enhance resilience of coastal ecosystems under changing environmental conditions.
Deadline for submission: February 28, 2021
For more information, please go to the Sustainability webpage or please contact me.
Read more here about her project:
Congratulations to graduate student and lab member Stacy Trackenberg on publishing her first, first-author paper in Ecology and Evolution! This was work she completed as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary!
The paper is entitled "Effects of embryo energy, egg size, and larval food supply on the development of asteroid echinoderms". Be sure to check it out!
The next series of blog posts will be about Emory's internship in the Gulf of Mexico with US EPA and Mississippi State University in the lab of Dr. Eric Sparks.
How do cities or companies interested in living shorelines get the ball rolling on projects which can protect their waterfront? Often, the first step is a site visit! I just went on my second site visit since being in Mississippi and it turns out they’re a lot of fun. Both of these began either with a local official (the Mayor of Biloxi – the man in the black jacket pointing) or the Safety Director of a chemical plant reaching out to local experts, including my supervisor, Dr. Eric Sparks (in camo). Site visits are fun because they’re essentially an ecological engineering brainstorming session – you tramp out to the shoreline and poke around, identifying native and non-native vegetation, trying to spot oysters or other bivalves, and hypothesizing about the degree to which the shoreline is changing based on Google Earth time lapse photos and the height of the marsh scarp. Site visits are also a great time to bring out the drone to collect high-quality aerial imagery, onto which you can map potential plantings or marsh sills. Site visits are a highly productive way to get out of the office and interact with coastal stakeholders!
The severity of boat wakes and wind waves can make or break the success of an oyster, seagrass, or marsh restoration project. However, the sensors required to collect wave energy data are often extremely expensive and therefore not frequently used. Wave energy plays a big role in my work so I have been very excited to learn how to build do-it-yourself wave gauges at the Sparks Lab. These gauges are built entirely from materials bought at Home Depot or computer parts websites, for a fraction of the price of the typical wave gauge. Though not necessarily difficult, the gauges require A LOT of steps and very precise work. The hardest thing for me was learning how to use a soldering iron. It’s a steep learning curve but a lot of fun, and I am happy to report that I have only seriously burned myself once. Here you can see the completed top portion of a gauge – the small white circle within the red square is the only portion of the instrument which will be exposed to water, and is actually a very sensitive membrane that calculates the pressure exerted on it by passing waves. Next up: trying to learn how to code using Arduino!
CE Field Work in the GBNERR
Do clonal plants “decide” how to best use their limited resources as they grow? Research by Dr. Valerie Reijers in the Netherlands indicates that grasses growing in sand dunes do, and marsh plants might as well. I set out to test this in a different system – namely a salt marsh at the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (GBNERR) in Moss Point, MS. Here, drought has led to the formation of salt pannes, into which black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus) is slowly growing back. With the help of folks from Mississippi State University (MSU) and GBNERR, we very carefully clipped needlerush shoots and replaced each with a pin, like you’d use in quilting. I then photographed these pinned plants, and we excavated the sediment to expose the rhizomes connecting the shoots. In the “After” picture, ALL of those little dots are the heads of pins. With these photos and the knowledge of how the plants connect, I can (theoretically) upload these photos into MATLAB and use Dr. Reijers’ code to assess the distances between shoots and therefore gain insight into the plants’ “priorities.” Wish me luck!
Congratulations to Sarah for successfully defending her thesis today! We are very proud of Sarah and her outstanding research on seagrass ecology!