University of Delaware undergraduate student Brian Griffiths is spending his time this summer with sharks, eagle rays, massive corals, turtles and schools of endangered fish as he conducts underwater research on seagrass in the Caribbean at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) in the Cayman Islands.
Griffiths’ research is part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded through a grant CCMI received from the National Science Foundation to study coral reef biodiversity and resilience at the Little Cayman Research Centre.
Griffiths, a senior Honors Program student who is majoring in environmental engineering and plant science with a minor in Spanish, is specifically focused on the discovery of an ecomorph of a species of seagrass, Thalassia testudinum.
“This species of seagrass is known to be able to change its morphology based on its environment, and I think this new form may be due to differing sediment characteristics,” said Griffiths, who takes 8-inch cores of seagrass out of different lagoons on the island and dissects them to count meristems – the tissue of a plant containing undifferentiated cells – and the number of shoots.
Griffiths also takes and analyzes sediment cores from the locations to determine what they are made up of and their thickness. He is hoping to find a correlation between the occurrence of the strange seagrass and the properties of the sediment in which it is found.
Seagrass meadows, along with algae, are important to reefs as they are often the first steps in forming the ecosystems and are the main food source for organisms such as sea turtles.
“Without seagrass, none of these ecosystems could exist, although it is often overlooked,” said Griffiths.
In addition to his seagrass research, which is usually conducted in the afternoon, Griffiths also does two morning dives where he takes photographs, runs transects to identify coral and fish populations, and also finds critically endangered coral species.
“We also do specialty dives, like lionfish culls,” said Griffiths. “A typical dive may last 45 minutes at 60 or 70 feet, then we come back to the boat and have a 45 minute surface interval before swapping our gear and going down again at a different site to do the same.”
Lionfish culls can also occur during the evenings, as Griffiths said that the species is incredibly invasive and venomous and that in addition to stinging tourists, they wreak havoc on the reefs, killing herbivorous fish that in turn results in the overgrowth of algae and death of corals.
Griffiths said he jumped into research scuba diving when he was coming up with a list of things that he thought were exciting but had never done.
“I had always wanted to be a diver. Doing research underwater, however, is a different story – it isn’t all swimming with turtles and sharks because we have a job to do. We are often dropped in places with huge amounts of surge and massive currents that sweep you onto your back when you come over the reef wall,” said Griffiths, who added that he enjoys doing field work and that CCMI and its staff are on the cutting edge of reef research in one of the last pristine, untouched marine reef ecosystems in the world.
“I was attracted by the prospect of doing work that had a visible impact in a highly vulnerable environment like the reef systems. It was also somewhat of an exploration for me in that I had never before conducted work underwater or done any research related to marine biology. I thought that by jumping in and getting my hands dirty I would be able to decide what I ultimately want to spend my life studying,” said Griffiths.
Griffiths is being mentored by CCMI’s Greg Foster, and he said that Foster is a great role model.
As for his favorite part about the program, Griffiths said that it had to be the diving.
“It takes my breath away every time. There is nothing like the first few seconds of dropping below the water level and seeing the world thriving beneath you. I often have to remind myself that I have a job to do so I don’t waste all of my air staring at everything,” said Griffiths.
Article by Adam Thomas
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