High school students help UVI map invasive seagrass

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About 25 11th and 12th graders at the Virgin Islands Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy have been working on a scientific study that could help research being conducted at the University of the Virgin Islands. The students are all taking a humanities and science class called “Environmental Systems and Societies” taught by Gloria Zakers. They have been studying an invasive species of seagrass, Halophila stipulacea.

UVI Marine and Advisory Service coordinator Howard Forbes Jr. teamed up with Zakers to use the students to help gather data about seagrasses in the territory. Zakers’ students each came up with their own research question and developed a method to collect and record data to answer that question. “So, today we were looking very specifically at an invasive species of seagrass,” Zakers said. “They don’t know what the impact of this invasive species might be.”

The new species is Halophila stipulacea, and while it is smaller than the native seagrasses, it is taking over and pushing out the native species.

imageUVI Marine and Environmental Sciences graduate students Sam Mitchell and Jess Keller recently wrapped up a study of the invasive seagrass as a part of the capstone project for their degrees. Their study revealed evidence that local animals eat the invasive seagrass, but the rate of consumption is not sufficient to prevent its expansion. However, not much is known about the new seagrass species, not even where is it found around the island, Forbes said.

UVI Environmental Data Manager Primack Avram worked with the Institute for Geocomputational Analysis and Statistics to develop a mapping software for the territory. The students in Zakers’ class will enter their findings into the mapping program. It will be the first step toward building a map of native and invasive seagrass beds in the territory, which could help future research projects at the university.

[. . .] Halophila stipulacea is native to the western Indian Ocean and is thought to have spread into the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas in ship ballasts. The way the grass reproduces is through fragmentation. If a piece breaks off, it starts growing a new plant. Forbes said this is believed to be the reason it is spreading so fast. Every time a boat drops anchor in the seagrass it damages the grass, breaks off pieces and spreads and starts to grow new colonies.

Native seagrasses buffer currents and surge and reduce beach erosion, and they also provide important food sources to endangered sea turtles. By mapping the different species of seagrass, scientists will be able to answer questions about how fast the invasisve grass is growing, whether animals are eating it and whether it grows in the same place as native species. [. . .]

For more information about the mapping project, call the UVI Center of Marine and Environmental Science at (340) 693-1672. [. . .]

For full article, see http://virginislandsdailynews.com/news/high-school-students-help-uvi-map-seagrass-1.1846406

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