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 Verity Lab Research Project 

Patterns of Ecosystem Function and Trophic Status in Well-mixed Subtropical Estuaries Undergoing Anthropogenic Modification

One long-term goal of Verity's research is to understand how plankton community structure, function, and net ecosystem metabolism of warm, well-mixed, subtropical estuaries change in response to increasing anthropogenic nutrient loading and natural environmental forcing. The primary mechanism to achieve this goal is to continue a unique, long-term (20+ years), temporally intensive (sampling twice per week) record in the Skidaway River estuary ( Georgia , USA ) of hydrography, nutrients, plankton and microbial communities, dissolved oxygen, and important living and non-living components of particulate matter. Data to date document changes caused by cultural eutrophication throughout the food web from bacteria to copepods; independently collected evidence shows major declines in commercial catches of fin- and shellfish. Commonly accepted conceptual models and limited local evidence support the notion that gelatinous predators may be benefiting from the enhanced microbial food web, as well as the declines in vertebrate and invertebrate competition. Project data will be used to evaluate estuarine biological and chemical responses to, and potential recovery from, the by-products of increasing human occupation of the coast, as well as chronic (long-term warming, rising sea level, extended drought or wet periods) and stochastic (tropical storms) patterns in natural phenomena.

Questions to be addressed fall into two basic categories: (a) how do plankton communities (individual taxa and bulk properties) respond in structure and function to early stages of eutrophication that include changes in concentrations and ratios of all major inorganic and organic nutrients, and (b) are such changes consonant with accepted ecological theory for estuarine ecosystems? The working hypothesis is that changes in nutrient loading have altered the competitive balance among phytoplankton, bacteria, and associated microbial communities, and these are impacting higher trophic levels. A major corollary is that changes in food web structure at the lower levels are driving a long-term shift from oxic towards hypoxic conditions and thus from autotrophy to net heterotrophy. These lower oxygen concentrations may facilitate the development of gelatinous predators communities to fill the void caused by declines in fin- and shellfish.

This study will provide sound scientific data on historic and contemporary patterns in plankton community structure, ecosystem function, and relationships to environmental variables, including trends in dissolved oxygen, as well as the quantitative basis for evaluating basic ecological hypotheses regarding estuarine ecosystems.

An active outreach program will use the scientific results as the basis for improved science teacher and classroom education, as well as to increase the representation of African Americans and other minorities in aquatic sciences. These project components, which will be integrated into the proposed research activities, will facilitate community awareness of linkages between population development, environmental quality, ecosystem operation, and resource conservation.

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