VI-EPSCoR Awards Five Mini-Grants to Researchers

As an NSF funded program designed to stimulate research within the US Virgin Islands Territory, VI-EPSCoR provided funding for five mini-grants in 2017. The current VI-EPSCoR program, Mare Nostrum Caribbean: Stewardship through Strategic Research and Workforce Development, funds research within the USVI that fosters collaborative ties among researchers from UVI, territorial and federal agencies and local businesses. Projects considered for funding were in the following Mare Nostrum research focus areas (1) Coral Reef and Fish Ecology (demographics, disease and dynamics); (2) Coastal Oceanography (3) Watershed Processes, and (4) Human Dimensions. Favored proposals included interdisciplinary research and links with the Brewer’s Bay Ecosystem Analysis Project.

Successful proposal abstracts are listed below

Fine-scale dynamics of sea anemone – cleaner shrimp – client fish mutualistic networks in Brewer’s Bay 

Principal Investigator (PI): Dr. Stephen Ratchford, Associate Professor, College of Science and Math, University of the Virgin Islands, VI 00802,, (340) 693-1387
Co-PI: Dr. Nanette Chadwick, Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849,, (334) 800-8184 

A cleaner shrimp and sea anemone

A cleaner shrimp and sea anemone

Short-term variation in the dynamics of coral reef organisms, on the order of days to weeks, is poorly understood but may have important implications for patterns of fish herbivory and other processes that control reef community structure. Cleaning mutualisms on Caribbean coral reefs often are centered around sea anemone cleaning stations which host resident cleaner shrimp. A wide diversity of reef fishes visit these stations, which may be highly dynamic in terms of the presence of anemones and cleaner shrimp. However, no published data exist on the fine-scale (days to weeks) variation in shrimp assemblages on anemone cleaning stations, although our preliminary observations indicate they may vary widely at these scales. We propose to quantify fine-scale variation, both temporal and spatial, in populations of host sea anemones, cleaner shrimp, and client fishes, on coral reefs in the vicinity of Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, USVI. We will examine how this short-term fine-scale variation differs between 2 reef sites in the Brewers Bay area, and between 2 seasons of the year. Variation in the mutualistic system will be compared with variation in physical oceanographic parameters (water motion, underwater irradiance and visibility, sedimentation rate, etc.) that differ over larger scales spatially (between the 2 reef sites) and temporally (between seasons), to assess how these physical parameters may impact longer-term changes in the variability of the species interactions. This project relates to the Mare Nostrum Caribbean program of VI-EPSCoR, by addressing research questions concerning Coral Reef and Fish Ecology (demographics, disease and dynamics), which is an area of focus within this program. This project also will link with the Brewer’s Bay Ecosystem Analysis Project. 

Patch Dynamics of the Invasive Seagrass Halophila stipulacea in the US Virgin Islands: Characterizing a Rapid and Profound Ecosystem Change 

Principle Investigator: Alice Stanford PhD (University of the Virgin Islands), (340) 693-1242
Co-PI: Teresa Turner PhD (University of the Virgin Islands) (340) 693-1382
Co-PI: Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria PhD (University of Washington) (340) 227-3012 

The invasion of the Caribbean by the seagrass Halophila stipulacea in producing rapid and dramatic ecological change. In order to document this unprecedented spread, we propose to map the patches of the seagrass in Brewer’s Bay, St. Thomas. Our baseline data will allow us and other future researchers to produce detailed analyses of the changes that are occurring. We will test whether differences are correlated with genetic differences in patches that might represent multiple introductions or whether differences are correlated with environmental differences such as water movement, depth, sediment characteristics, or presence of competitors.  

Apicomplexa of Coral Reef Fishes: New Models To Study Parasitic Diseases and Broaden STEM Participation

Principle Investigator: Jennilee B. Robinson PhD (UVI) (340) 693-1383  
Co-PI: Paul Sikkel PhD (Arkansas State University and UVI) (870) 972-­‐3296
Co-PI: Andrew G. Campbell PhD (Brown University) (401) 863‐1007
Student Trainees: Nirisha Commodore, (UVI -­‐undergraduate NIH-­‐RISE scholar), Akacia Halliday (UVI -­‐MMES Graduate Student), Elizabeth Smith (UVI -­‐MMES Graduate Student)  

This reef fish makes its home on branching coral

This reef fish makes its home on branching coral

Caribbean coral reef fish carry protozoa inside their red blood cells. The nature of the infecting organism is poorly understood, but they are believed to be apicomplexan parasites, closely related to those that cause of malaria and toxoplasmosis in humans. It is unknown how the fish acquire the infection, and whether or not the infection causes symptomatic disease. We aim to establish the complete lifecycle of these parasites, with model organisms such as Damselfish and Gnathia marleyi from just off shore of the Center for Marine and Environmental Sciences at UVI, in Brewers Bay, “Mare Nostrum”. Moreover, we are an interdisciplinary team consisting of a undergraduate and graduate students, a UVI teaching faculty with expertise in vector--‐borne infectious disease, as well as two well--‐ established scientists partnering with UVI; Dr. Andrew Campbell, a parasitologist and leader in STEM research training and underrepresented minority career development from Brown University and coral reef ecologist, Dr. Paul Sikkel from Arkansas State University. Together we are committed to training underrepresented students in research science carried out within our local environment and including the VI community in our research through active outreach. By studying these poorly described infectious protozoa in VI fish, UVI students will be part of significant scientific discoveries with broad--‐reaching applications ranging from coral reef dynamics to combating human disease. 

Physiological ecology of the invasive seagrass Halophila stipulacea in Brewers Bay 

Principle Investigator: Edwin Cruz-Rivera PhD, Assistant Professor, College of Science and Math, UVI, (340) 693-1235 

Despite the attention garnered by the spread of the invasive alga Halophila stipulacea in the Caribbean, little is known about the effects of biotic or abiotic variables on its biology. This information is important for models predicting the spread of the invader and for the design of management practices. This study will take a physiological ecology approach to address the effects of salinity and light on photosynthetic efficiency, growth, and productivity of this seagrass. Laboratory experiments will be coupled with in situ measurements of photosynthetic efficiency (e.g., quantum yield) of H. stipulacea beds at different sites of Brewers Bay and St. Thomas with distinct physico-chemical parameters. The work will train two undergraduate students in the used of mesocosm experiments, and the applications of PAM fluorometry and biochemical analyses of plant properties (allocation to stored sugars, protein content, chlorophyll content, and others) to assess physiological limits of marine organisms. 

Variability in Blue Carbon Storage of Natural vs. Restored Red Mangrove Habitats in the U.S. Virgin Islands  

Principle Investigator: Kristin Wilson Grimes,, (340) 693-1392  
Co-PI: Erik Smith,, (843) 904-9035  
Co-PI: Sydney Nick,, (715) 573-1950  

Mangrove seedlings near Brewers Bay

Mangrove seedlings near Brewers Bay

Mangrove habitats are important “blue carbon” sinks, capturing and storing carbon in their tissues, especially belowground. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, mangroves are protected, though their removal can and has been permitted, requiring mitigation through restoration activities. Across the three islands, natural and restored mangrove stands exist, providing an opportunistic setting to understand how natural versus restored mangrove sites function with regard to carbon storage and time since restoration. The focus of this project is to explore these questions for Rhizophora mangle, a species commonly used in restoration activities. The findings from this project will inform natural resource managers who are responsible for guiding mangrove restoration in the Territory. Key project outputs include: creation of a new loss-on-ignition-carbon calibration curve for Rhizophora mangle, analyses of within and across restoration habitat variation in sediment carbon concentrations, submission of one grant proposal that seeks external funding, and communication of study results via traditional scientific means and community outreach events. Study results will be of interest to the Virgin Islands Department of Planning & Natural Resources in planning decisions and represents a continuation of collaborative ties between researchers from two NSF EPSCoR jurisdictions: the USVI and South Carolina.