Our lab research focuses on many aspects of marine and benthic ecology. More specifically, we use quantitative experimental ecology and take a multidisciplinary approach to examine controlling mechanisms of spatial and temporal variability in community structure and stability.
Much of our research focuses on positive biological interactions, bentho-pelagic coupling, and ecosystem engineering. Our specific research interests are:
- Multiple Stressors on Seagrass Ecosystems
Seagrasses are extremely important in shallow marine habitats. However, there are many environmental stressors that are having negative impacts on seagrass ecosystems. Among these are decreased light due to nutrient loading, increased temperature associated with climate change, sulfide toxicity from high organic, poorly oxygenated sediments, pesticide and herbicide runoff and groundwater seepage, and trophic cascades via overfishing of upper trophic levels. Our lab has conducted a series of manipulative experiments in both the lab and the field to investigate the impacts of these stressors, focusing on temperature, shading, sulfide toxicity and groundwater discharge of herbicides.
- Seagrass-Animal Interactions
Seagrasses are foundation species in many shallow water, coastal ecosystems. Their importance as a spawning and nursery grounds for a variety of commercial and recreational fisheries species has been well established. Despite this recognized importance, the critical environmental factors limiting seagrass assemblages are poorly understood, as are the biological interactions that directly and indirectly affect the health of seagrass ecosystems. Past projects have included looking at the role of sponges in Florida Bay to control phytoplankton blooms and increase light availability to the benthic plant community, the effect of marine protected areas on changing trophic transfer from nearby seagrass foraging grounds on both “no take” and unprotected reefs, the way herbivorous fish create nutrient “hot spots” around patch reefs, and the facilitation of seagrass growth via light and nutrient stress alleviation by hard clams. Future projects aim to investigate the role of bioturbators in alleviation of sulfide stress to the root-rhizome complex.
- Seagrass Landscape Ecology
Seagrasses form vast underwater meadows, and provide a variety of ecosystem services. However, various factors have caused seagrasses to decline – mostly anthropogenic, some direct (mechanical destruction), some indirect (nutrient loading). The many factors that cause seagrasses to decline have caused many seagrass meadows to shrink, and habitats to become a mosaic of patches which vary in areal size, shape, complexity, and distance between patches. This patchiness can have deleterious affects on associated fauna, as has been demonstrated for a variety of species. Our lab takes 2 approaches to understanding seagrass landscapes. The first approach involves using artificial seagrass units (ASUs) to answer questions about the impacts on fragmented seagrass habitat on associated fauna. Specifically we focus on the bay scallop, a model seagrass organism, and investigate the role that patch architecture has on the settlement, recruitment, growth and survival of scallops. The second approach involves working in naturally patchy seagrass areas to understand the mechanisms which control patch size, formation, and growth. We utilize areal photography, sediment biogeochemistry, and modelling to understand what controls seagrass patches.
- Restoration Ecology
Due to a variety of anthropogenic insults, coastal waters have seen the collapse of multiple fisheries. Long Island once supported vibrant shellfisheries, and for a variety of reasons, including water quality issues, overharvest, and harmful algal blooms, populations of oysters, clams and scallops have collapsed. Our lab is involved in various shellfish restoration projects around Long Island. We participate in the highly successful bay scallop restoration effort along with researchers from Long Island University and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. We are involved in monitoring of both new settlers, juveniles, and adult populations, and we have conducted a series of field experiments to understand factors limiting scallop survival. Additionally, our lab has been involved in hard clam restoration in Great South Bay, NY, in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy. Hard clams used to be the major commercial fishery on Long Island, and populations crashed in the late 1970s due to overharvest. We help conduct shallow water clam surveys for the project. More recently, our lab has become involved with the Hudson River Foundation, examining the ecosystem function of restored oyster reefs in the Hudson River, specifically focusing on habitat value and macrofauna associated with restored reefs. Finally, we are conducting a series of field manipulations and monitoring projects to assess the feasibility and potential for shellfish and seagrass restoration in the western portions of Shinnecock Bay, Long Island.
- Introduced and Exotic Species
Novel and exotic species are constantly being introduced into new habitats and new ecosystems. The impacts of these new species can have devastating and long-lasting affects. Long Island has seen multiple invasions, including some recent invaders such as the Asian Shore Crab and the Didemnum tunicate. These invaders can have devastating impacts on the naive ecosystems. In particular, we examine the roles that the invasive shore crabs might have on saltmarsh ecosystems around Long Island. The shore crabs typical rocky intertidal habitat is not common around Long Island, so shore crabs have invaded salt marshes. Our research suggests that competitive interactions between shore crabs and saltmarsh resident species is having a negative impact on the marshes. However, not all introduced species may have harmful impacts; some introduced species can even facilitate native species, in particular, habitat forming species. While not all introduced exotics prove beneficial, a major problem in many ecosystems is habitat loss. New species which fill this void are likely to positively influence native species which are reliant on habitat for some portion of their life cycles. This appears to be the case in the Peconics with an introduced canopy forming macroalgae, Codium fragile, and bay scallops. We have observed scallops associated with Codium often during field surveys, and some of our research suggests that Codium may offer the same habitat benefits as eelgrass in terms of survival.
- Climate Change and Ocean Acidification
- Trophic Relationships
You can also find some past adventures of the Peterson Seagrass Rangers here.