(August 07, 2017) --

A juvenile green turtle grazes in turtlegrass in St. Joe Bay, Florida. (Courtesy: Alex Rodriguez, Heck Lab)

Eleven institutions, including the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, will work together to understand the effects of the Tropicalization of the Western Atlantic seagrass meadows with funding from the National Science Foundation. Dr. Ken Heck with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab is one of 14 researchers, lead by the Smithsonian Institute's, Dr. Justin Campbell, to study seagrass meadows across the Gulf of Mexico, the east coast of Florida, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central America.

Tropicalization, which is an increase in the number of types of tropical species colonizing temperate areas, has been occuring in the seagrass meadows of the Gulf of Mexico. Among these colonizers are an influx of tropical herbivores, including green turtles, manatees, and parrot fishes which feed on seagrass. 

Dr. Ken Heck

Turtlegrass meadows provide a critical nursery habitat for many important fish, crab, and shrimp species. In other parts of the world, similar immigrations of seagrass herbivores have created a decline in seagrass and local fishery harvests. However, it is unclear to what extent this may be occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. 

"We will carry out the first experiment to quantify the potentially disruptive effect of tropicalization on the functioning of a extraordinarily valuable seagrass ecosystem that provides food and shelter for many economically important species and supports many other valuable ecosystem services for the people of the northern Gulf of Mexico," Dr. Heck explained. "The results of this work will allow us to predict the future impacts of tropicalization on the harvest of the many shrimp, crab and fish species that depend on seagrass habitats, as well as the overall functioning of our northern Gulf seagrass meadows." 

In collaborating on this project, this team is hoping to fill the gaps of past studies in understanding the direct effects of climate on the ecological functioning of turtlegrass meadows. 

Dr. Heck's work will focus on the turtlegrass meadows of St. Joe Bay, Florida. Heck Lab manager Dottie Byron and graduate student Alex Rodriguez will work alongside Dr. Heck on this project.

The research is slated to take place from January 2018 to December 2020.