Witman Lab covered in National Geographic feature article on climate change in the Galapagos Islands
One of our lab's primary research efforts is focused on studying the impacts of the El Niño - La Niña cycle on marine communities in the Galapagos Islands. This month, National Geographic featured an article on the work the Witman Lab and others are doing to study the myriad effects of climate perturbations on the iconic wildlife of the archipelago. You can read the article and check out special online content here, or see the print issue featuring the article titled "Life in the Balance" by Chris Solomon, photos by Thomas P. Peschak.
We are proud to share the new publication from the Witman Lab, titled "Experimental demonstration of a trophic cascade in the Galápagos rocky subtidal: Effects of consumer identity and behavior". In it, Professor Witman and colleagues Franz Smith and Mark Novak show observational and experimental evidence as well as behavioral interaction modeling of a 4-tier trophic cascade involving top predators (sea lions and sharks), meso-predators (triggerfish), herbivores (urchins), and primary producers (algae). This pathway is further complicated by interference competition by hogfish, which harass and steal the urchin prey from triggerfish. You can read the Brown University press release here, and the article is open access and free to read at:
Fiona Beltram was awarded a Voss Environmental Fellowship to study the dynamics and ecological impacts of cyanobacterial mats in the Galapagos Islands. We first discovered these mats covering large areas of the reef at several of our monitoring sites during the extreme El Niño event of 2015. Since then, Fiona has been developing experiments and observational techniques for assessing the environmental drivers of this new community state, what species might be potential herbivores of cyanobacteria, and how these mats affects the sessile invertebrates and algae that they overgrow.
Camila Lupi was awarded a UTRA grant to study the behavior of herbivorous fishes feeding on algae in extreme high wave environments. Camila will be working with graduate student Robbie Lamb using high-resolution measurements of wave velocities using an acoustic Doppler velocimeter, while simultaneously filming feeding behavior. The goal is to determine the flow conditions that are sufficient for excluding any given species from foraging in the shallow subtidal. This information will be used to validate a general model of periodically stressful environments and how they limit the potential for top-down ecological control.
Last Friday, Fiona Beltram was a guest speaker in Mr. David Moscarelli’s AP Environmental Science class at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, RI (her former high school). Her presentation, entitled “Community Ecology in the Galapagos Islands”, outlined the basic principles of community ecology and their applications in marine systems. She discussed the lab’s work on El Nino-related effects of climate change in the Galapagos, and presented some recent temperature data from the 2015/2016 El Nino cycle. She then gave an overview of underwater fieldwork methods, and talked about her experience as part of the Witman Lab’s research team working in the Galapagos last summer. Mr. Moscarelli’s students are currently preparing to take the AP Environmental Science exam in May, and will continue to study community ecology and conservation biology throughout the year.
Jon and Robbie both attended the 2017 meeting of the Association for the Study of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), held at the wonderful Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu, HI. It was a bit surreal to be back in Hawaii for a conference just 6 months after ICRS. Both gave talks on the effects of the extreme 2015-2016 El Niño event in Galapagos: Jon on benthic communities with a multi-ENSO perspective gained from almost 20 years of monitoring, and Robbie on fish communities. It was a very successful meeting and a great chance to learn more about the physical oceanography methods and questions currently being used.
Of course, a trip to Hawaii would not be complete without enjoying some of the beautiful landscapes and iconic wildlife!
Our work to describe the unique marine ecosystems on Cashes Ledge, a proposed marine national monument in the Gulf of Maine, is highlighted in the recent National Geographic February issue. The story is titled: "Why it's important to save our seas' last pristine places", and was written by Cynthia Barnett, with spectacular photography by our friend and colleague in the Cashes Ledge movement, Brian Skerry.
See also the Brown University website feature article written for Brown University News by David Orenstein: "Galápagos waters illustrate ecological drama of climate change". This article covers the Witman Lab's many research efforts studying the effects of El Niño cycles and climate change on marine ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.
For the first two weeks of January, lab research assistant Eliza Moore joined Jon, Robbie, and Franz in the Galapagos. Eliza has been with the Witman lab analyzing barnacle slides and fish behavior videos as well as managing our databases since 2012, but this was her first opportunity to see the field sites in person. She spent five days of the trip diving, mainly assisting with deployment of fish cams and barnacle settlement plates. Below, Eliza poses with a Porites coral at one of the Witman Lab's permanent coral transects on Guy Fawkes Island.
On the very first dive of the trip, as Eliza and Robbie fixed plates to the rock walls at Baltra, they glanced over their shoulders to see six 10-foot scalloped hammerheads gliding gracefully by! It was quite a welcome for the first-timer. The final dive of her trip was also pretty sharky, with several black-tip reef sharks curiously observing the scientists at work at Guy Fawkes.
Between camera deployments, Eliza had plenty of time to explore, visiting the small benthic organisms she has observed in so many quadrapod slides (over 2000 of them!) up close and personal! With the La Nina conditions in full swing, the invertebrate communities at most sites were lively and lush!
Four days of diving were while living aboard the Queen Mabel – Eliza finally experienced the Witman Lab motto: “Dive – Eat – Repeat”! Jonas Lechert, a graduate student studying at the Darwin Station joined the Witman team for the Queen Mabel cruise, and we were all able to assist in each other’s research.
Panelists (from left to right, Bob Nixon, Sylvia Earle, Brian Skerry, Max Kennedy, Richard Pyle)
In Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures, director Robert Nixon follows explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle, activist and author Max Kennedy, photographer Brian Skerry, and many others on a journey through some of America’s most captivating marine habitats. The documentary highlights the lack of protection for these special places, and advocates for the creation of “blue parks”, much like the terrestrial National Parks that protect areas like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.
In June 2016, the Witman Lab worked with Brian Skerry and the rest of the National Geographic team at Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine, shooting photo and video for the documentary. Incredible footage from the weeks out at Cashes Ledge showed the vibrant kelp forest, local populations of red cod, and even a bird’s-eye view of two sei whales. Jon Witman and Fiona Beltram gave interviews, discussing the importance of biodiversity at Cashes Ledge for the fisheries industry and for the public.
This week, Fiona traveled to Washington, D.C. for the world premiere of the documentary, followed by a panel discussion. Panelists Robert Nixon, Sylvia Earle, Brian Skerry, Max Kennedy, and Richard Pyle talked about their experiences during the filming, and their years of work for ocean conservation. Dr. Earle reflected on the expansion of Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, and emphasized the role of young people in securing a better future for fragile ocean habitats.
The documentary will air at 7 pm, Sunday, January 15th on the National Geographic Channel.
A link to the channel can be found here.
Witman Lab undergraduate researcher Fiona Beltram attended the premier event in Washington D.C.
Last month saw two new publications come out of the Witman Lab, a productive November!
Jon Witman was co-author of a well-received manuscript published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documenting global patterns in kelp forest change over the past half century.
Robert Lamb was co-author of a study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series demonstrating the role of predation risk and biogenic habitat availability on the distribution of a diminutive Chilean fish, Helcogrammoides cunninghami.
Last month Witman Lab undergraduate Fiona Beltram joined members of the Rhode Island DEM at a public hearing to discuss revisions to RI Marine Fisheries regulations. Included on the agenda were proposed revisions to rules dealing with dusky smooth-hounds, a small (~48”) coastal shark. Current rules allow removal of smooth-hound fins in state waters, and do not set daily possession limits outside of a season quota.
The proposed update would allow fin removal only if smooth-hounds made up at least 25% of the total catch on board. Other shark species may be kept on board as long as the fins remain attached.
Professor Caroline Karp and students in her International Marine Policy seminar attended the hearing to submit comments on these revisions. They recommended bans or restrictions on species of sharks which are listed as “protected” or “overfished” in federal law. These species, such as the porbeagle shark, can still be landed in RI waters. They also recommended a ban on shark fin possession, including smooth-hound fins. This would close a loophole that enables fins which are banned in Massachusetts to be sold in Rhode Island instead.
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