Our lives revolve around water. It makes up 71% of the Earth’s surface and up to 78% of the human body. It is required for life and provides us with food, jobs, medicine, innovation, and enjoyment.
However, Earth’s water resources are at growing risk from a variety of stressors such as coastal development, climate change, pollution, overfishing, invasive species, and much, much more.
Faculty members in UNF’s Coastal and Marine Biology Flagship Program conduct research on a diverse array of marine organisms and a broad range of issues critical to our understanding of the Ocean. Our work is important because it helps us maximize human benefits from the Ocean while still conserving Earth’s water resources in a responsible manner.
Coastal and Marine Biology faculty regularly collaborate with nationally- and internationally-known researchers at a number of other well-respected institutions involved in coastal and marine research.
Coastal and Marine Biology research at UNF is strengthened by the University’s close proximity to the riverine, estuarine, and marine habitats of the St. Johns River, Intracoastal Waterway, and Atlantic Ocean and our modern and well-equipped research facilities. Our recently constructed, $40.5M four-story, 116,500-ft2 Biological Sciences Building includes faculty research laboratories designed for research on coastal and marine ecology, behavior, physiology, toxicology, genetics, and developmental biology along with a seawater supply system, a large-animal necropsy facility, and a variety of advanced instrumentation. The Department also maintains a fleet of small to mid-sized research vessels ranging from 17’ to 32’ in length along with a range of vehicles used for trailering boats or transporting field crews to study locations.
Although most are individually invisible to the naked eye, it’s hard to overlook the influence that algae has on the world. For example, as the great architects of the Earth’s atmosphere, algae were and are responsible for producing most of the oxygen that makes the Earth’s atmosphere suitable for our survival. Algae are also important sources of food, medicines, and other helpful products. On the other hand, algae can also be problematic for human populations, especially in Florida where algal blooms regularly occur and can lead to choked waterways, fish kills, and human respiratory problems. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty study both the diversity of algae and the manner in which they respond to environmental factors, information critical for a more complete understanding of a group often called the most important organisms on Earth.
Coral reefs and seagrass beds are diverse and productive ecosystems that many marine organisms depend on for food and shelter. They also have great economic value. However, these habitats are increasingly threatened by a variety of local and global stressors such as algal blooms, overfishing, disease, ocean acidification and climate change. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty are currently studying the effects of stressors such as toxic algae, temperature change, and disease on coral and seagrass health with the ultimate goal of conserving these critical habitats.
The estuarine waters of the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, FL provides critical habitat for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). However, this population has not been well studied historically and is increasingly threatened by the high degree of human activity in this portion of the river. Since 2011, UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty have conducted photo-identification and behavioral surveys of dolphins in the St. Johns River with the goals of learning more about these animals and assessing the overall impact of human activities on their health and well-being.
Nervous system damage as a result of traumatic events such as accidents are a leading cause of disability and death throughout the world. Historically, injuries of this nature have been considered to be permanent because the human nervous system is limited in its ability to repair itself. However, more recent research has demonstrated that vertebrate nerve regeneration may be possible in some situations, providing promise for future improvements in the treatment of these disabilities. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty are contributing to this work by studying the process of regeneration in echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins, and their relatives) –our closest invertebrate relatives – with the goal of identifying mechanisms of nervous system repair that could potentially be re-activated in poorly regenerating animals such as humans and other vertebrates.
Estuaries are partially enclosed bodies of water where saltwater from the ocean mixes with fresh water from rivers or streams. As the “nurseries of the sea”, estuaries are important because they provide essential habitat for many ecologically-, commercially-, and recreationally-important aquatic plants and animals. They also play an important role in maintaining coastal health by filtering out sediments and pollutants from rivers and streams before they reach the Ocean. However, as well demonstrated over the past few decades, the health of the nation’s estuaries and the important functions that they perform are at growing risk from a number of both natural and human-related disturbances. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty are currently studying the distribution and abundance of estuarine wildlife populations and how they can be impacted by ecological disturbances such as coastline loss. We are also testing the effectiveness of different approaches of coastal restoration with the overall goal of improving estuarine health and function.
All animal populations exhibit genetic variability, differences in the DNA structure of individuals in the population that give them some different traits and abilities. For example, darker-skinned people have greater protection from the potentially damaging effects of sunlight and people that exhibit certain types of genetic mutations may suffer from diseases such as diabetes. Genetic variability also occurs in coastal and marine organisms and may influence their susceptibility to the many stressors that they face risks from. For example, genetic differences in some coral species may make some individuals more resilient to warming ocean temperatures whereas genetic variability in some seagrass species may make some individuals less susceptible to some diseases. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty are currently studying how genetic variability influences the resilience of aquatic wildlife with the ultimate goal of conserving these populations in the face of growing ecological threats. We are also conducting basic research on how speciation, the formation of new species, and hybridization, the breeding between members of different species, occur in coastal and marine animals because they influence genetic variability in ways that could be either helpful or harmful to wildlife populations or either useful or problematic for humans.
Fisheries are important to human populations because they provide food, recreation, and vast economic benefits. However, as highly publicized in recent years, a large portion of global fishery resources are overexploited and these declines could lead to a loss of the benefits that fisheries provide us as well as to declines in the health of coastal and marine ecosystems. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty are currently studying how certain commercially important fishery species such as blue crabs and American eels replace themselves so that approaches for reducing overfishing of these resources can be developed. We are also studying how other ecological stressors, including the introduction of invasive, non-native species such as the lionfish, can impact commercially important fish populations.
After digesting food, animals absorb nutrients such as amino acids and sugars by using special proteins in the cells that make up the inner lining of their intestine and other organs involved in nutrient uptake. Understanding how these proteins function is important for grasping how animals nourish themselves and can be useful for improving nutrition in animals, such as those that are reared for food in aquaculture settings. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty are currently studying how nutrient uptake occurs in a number of commercially important coastal and marine animals such as shrimp, crabs, and lobsters with the ultimate goal of improving aquaculture techniques and reducing our reliance on dwindling natural wildlife resources.
As important predators in estuarine and marine ecosystems, sharks and rays play critical roles in maintaining balance in aquatic food webs. They also provide important benefits to humans through their use in fisheries, public aquaria, and ecotourism. However, many shark and ray populations have been drastically reduced as a result of overfishing. Since 2009, UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty in the UNF Shark Biology Program have been surveying northeast Florida shark populations with the goal of identifying trends in the abundance and population status of these fishes. We also study habitat use, reproduction, and pollutant exposure and effects in sharks and rays, providing information essential for their management and conservation.
Because of their slow rates of population growth and propensity for being caught and killed unintentionally by various types of fishing gear, many species of aquatic turtles throughout the world are critically endangered. UNF Coastal and Marine Biology faculty have studied the biology of endangered aquatic turtle species such as the diamondback terrapin for over 30 years, contributing information necessary for the conservation of these species. We are also studying the effectiveness of “bycatch reduction devices” that have been developed for reducing the unintentional capture and mortality of these species.
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