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Andrea Anton Gamazo

April 8, 2016
2013: Andrea Anton Gamazo

Ecology and Evolution of the Lionfish Invasion of the Caribbean

“Her research could prove critical to rescuing North Carolina’s high-dollar commercial fishing industry as well as a recreational fishery that engages many North Carolinians and creates high economic value,” said advisor Charles Peterson, Ph.D.

Lionfish have arrived off the North Carolina coast, where they have become one of the most abundant fish predators and a major conservation concern.

Previous terrestrial and freshwater studies have illustrated the devastating ecological effects that invasive predators can exert on naïve prey, including regional species extinction. Doctoral student Andrea Anton Gamazo performed extensive studies of the non-native lionfish’s invasion of marine ecosystems. Her research discovered that numerous fish species do not identify the lionfish as a predator—the most dangerous form of prey naiveté because it prevents anti-predator responses.

The lionfish diet includes such species as grouper and snapper, important to the North Carolina coastal economy. The wide distribution of lionfish could have devastating consequences for local fisheries and the state’s economy.

Andrea’s research adds crucial knowledge to enhance management of this exotic predator in North Carolina.

Rachel Gittman

April 8, 2016
2014: Rachel Gittman

What Salt Marshes Can Tell State Leaders

“The policy implications of her rigorous and inspired research on how to minimize loss of coastal marsh ecosystem services are wide-reaching and highly significant,” said co-adviser Charles Peterson, Ph.D.

Both state and federal policymakers and managers are using doctoral student Rachel Gittman’s dissertation research as they address coastal management challenges.

Gittman’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the ecology of salt marshes, a vital and increasingly vulnerable coastal ecosystem. As part of her research, she evaluated the effectiveness of different shoreline stabilization approaches in providing the ecosystem services of shoreline protection and habitat for fish and crustaceans. Gittman hypothesized that living shoreline approaches, such as marsh sills (marsh plantings that incorporate a seaward outline of low rocks parallel to the marsh edge), would sustain and enhance ecosystem services provided by salt marshes better than traditional shore stabilization approaches, such as bulkheads.

Gittman’s findings indicate that marsh sills can provide better shore protection than bulkheads during storm events, while also enhancing fish habitat. Additionally, based on a nationwide analysis of shoreline data, she found that 14 percent of the U.S. coast has been hardened by some unnatural structure, 66 percent of which has occurred in the Gulf and Southeast regions, where most remaining salt marsh habitat occurs.

Gittman recommends that living shorelines be considered as an ecologically preferable alternative to bulkheads for shore protection, particularly in regions with naturally occurring salt marshes. “Rachel’s work is informing coastal homeowners in North Carolina about the best and worst ways to protect their property from storms and sea level rise,” said co-adviser John Bruno, Ph.D.

Dennis Tarasi

April 8, 2016
2016: Dennis Tarasi

Invasive Shrubs and Their Influence on N.C. Forests

“Dennis is providing comprehensive and compelling evidence as to the impacts of exotic plant species and the pattern of these impacts across the Carolina landscape. This is work that advances our conceptual framework regarding the impacts of invasive species and, in addition, helps inform managers as to where and how to focus their efforts to control invasive exotics,” said adviser Robert Peet, Ph.D.

Native to other regions of the world, invasive plants can disrupt the ecology of natural areas where they are introduced. They affect nearly every area of North Carolina, and the autumn olive and Chinese privet, in particular, have escaped cultivation and increased in frequency and density.

To determine the effects of these invasive shrubs on the state’s forests, doctoral student Dennis Tarasi sampled forested plant communities in North Carolina with varying levels of autumn olive or Chinese privet dominance. His findings showed that the dominance of these shrubs correlated with significant changes in the forests, including the overall loss of native species and a significant decline in young trees. Chinese privet “invasions” corresponded to greater native species loss and structural changes than those by autumn olive. Many invasive species also have been documented as negatively affecting soil and available light.

Tarasi assessed changes in soil moisture levels, air temperature and light availability, emphasizing locations that were heavily invaded compared to those with little invasion. He found that the heavily invaded sites were more shaded and cooler across the entire summer. Soil moisture did not appear affected. Tarasi then removed invasive shrubs from several sites in his study; this action increased light availability and air temperature with little effect on soil moisture. Land managers, scientists, policymakers and many others can apply Tarasi’s research and methods to manage ongoing invasions.