Lab Research

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.

Recent Posts

2018 Call for Summer Research Assistants

The Peterson Marine Community Ecology Lab is seeking to interview and select eight to ten (8 – 10) highly motivated volunteer research assistants for summer 2018 to work on several dissertation and monitoring projects. Research hours can be used towards research credit hours with Dr. Bradley Peterson. (High school students, please take note: the minimum age to be considered for a volunteer position with us is 17).

Volunteers will be asked to commit at least two days per week from late May/June through August. Exact starting and end dates are negotiable.

We specifically look for people who are comfortable and enjoy being outdoors, especially in the field on boats and in the water. Volunteers should be in good physical shape and enjoy hands-on work. Ability to swim is a requirement. Certified divers are strongly encouraged to apply.

If interested, please send your CV/resume and a list of available meeting times to Diana Chin and Stephen Heck (, Please note that it is unlikely that you will work exclusively on one project, though you might work primarily on one or two. We think that exploring a variety of research questions and methods is essential to your scientific development!

Summer Research Topics:

Steve Heck: predator-prey interactions among fish, crabs, and bivalves

Steve will be researching how black sea bass influence trophic cascades that govern the survival of bivalves such as blue mussels and bay scallops. Experiments will be conducted both in mesocosm tanks at the Stony Brook University Southampton Marine Station as well as in the field in Shinnecock Bay, NY.

Alyson Lowell: seagrasses and ocean acidification

Alyson will employ a myriad of field and laboratory approaches to investigate how carbon dioxide enrichment affects carbonate chemistry in seagrass communities and whether seagrasses will serve as a refuge for marine organisms in a high CO2 world. Students working with her will be exposed to exciting field and laboratory techniques and will be taught to run successful ocean acidification experiments. Volunteers who are field oriented and SCUBA certified are encouraged.

Kaitlyn O’Toole: water quality and bio-optical modeling

This summer Kaitlyn will be continuing work on a bio-optical model (generally having to do with how much light reaches the bottom of the water column), which will be used to target feasible areas of seagrass restoration. This involves plenty of fieldwork in both Peconic and Great South Bay: water sampling weekly, SCUBA transect dives for site characteristics, productivity and epiphyte measurements in seagrass, sediment sampling, tidal/wave current velocity measurements, and drone imagery of seagrass sites. Kaitlyn is typically out on the water 1-3 times a week, depending on the weather. You will learn how to collect and filter whole water samples, use the equipment to measure water column properties, learn about and snorkel (or SCUBA if certified) around seagrass, learn sampling techniques for seagrass, water, and sediments, and obtain boating experience.

Leah Reidenbach: food webs, invertebrate physiology, and ocean acidification

Leah will be developing a method for using underwater photomosaics as a tool for building food webs in seagrass ecosystems. She will compare food webs across a eutrophication gradient to test if food web characteristics can determine differences in ecosystem stability. Volunteers will get experience with fieldwork and sampling animal tissue for stable isotope analysis. She will also be testing the effects of ocean acidification and temperature on mud crab physiology. Here, volunteers will get experience with setting up ocean acidification experiments and testing animal physiology responses such as respiration and calcification.

Dylan Cottrell: seagrass community ecology

Dylan will broadly focus on species distributions, edge effects, habitat complexity, and/or seagrass community responses along a stress gradient (namely eutrophication).

Other Monitoring and Research

The lab will be deploying eelgrass- and shellfish-based restoration projects and conducting assessments of water quality, seagrass, and fauna in Great South Bay and Shinnecock Bay. For example, Diana Chin will be leading the Peterson lab’s benthic surveys for the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program (ShiRP).

We hope to hear from you soon!

  1. Early Birds Leave a reply
  2. February 2018 Leave a reply
  3. Welcome New Graduate Students! Leave a reply
  4. Benthic Ecology Meeting 2017 Leave a reply
  5. 2017 Call for Summer Research Assistants Leave a reply
  6. Spring 2017 Series #1 Leave a reply
  7. Meet an Oceanographer at Riverhead Aquarium Leave a reply
  8. October 2016 Leave a reply
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