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Catfish, turtles provide research opportunities for Stetson faculty, students

Florida and its manatees benefit from Stetson freshwater and marine initiatives, while students gain experiential learning.

Jennifer Gooch and leatherback turtleThroughout the years, Melissa Gibbs, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, has conducted research on the armored catfish species, particularly around two ways catfish are impacting the environment at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Fla.

One of the issues is that catfish attach themselves to the manatees that come into the spring to enjoy the warm water. The catfish graze on algae on the manatees, disturbing and stressing the mammals. The other issue that is affecting the spring ecosystem is the catfish feces which act as a powerful fertilizer and bolster algae growth in the area, altering the nutrient and oxygen levels of the spring run.

“There are a couple of initiatives centered on armored catfish, which is a non-native, invasive species,” said Gibbs, who also has conducted this research with Kirsten Work, Ph.D., associate professor of biology. “I’ve been researching and publishing on the basic biology of this species, including the reproductive patterns, how long they live, how fast they grow. This research allows us to understand the species better and help manage it better in our ecosystem.”

Research on armored catfish is one of many Stetson University freshwater initiatives. These initiatives seek to integrate faculty and student research, management and policy pertaining to water locally and regionally, with international connections. While promotion of sustainability is an overarching goal for Stetson, the study and research of water issues provides a distinctive opportunity for interdisciplinary teaching, research and community engagement.

“You look at a map of Florida and there is water all over the place,” said Gibbs. “When you look at institutions that study water, it is usually marine-related. We have always had an aquatic and marine biology program, because aquatic — freshwater — is really important, but it is often not studied as much as marine systems are.

“There are studies that show that if you don’t have enough green space and an appealing natural environment to look at, it lowers the quality of life for humans. We need freshwater for the health of the wildlife and the environment, so having a healthy ecosystem is not only important for a biologist, it is important for everyone,” said Gibbs.

Jennifer Gooch (left) and Dr. Melissa Gibbs (right)

Melissa Gibbs, Ph.D., (right) and Jennifer Gooch search for clues to help the Blue Spring ecosystem.

Students are actively involved in the study of armored catfish as well as other projects related to Stetson’s freshwater initiatives. Jennifer Gooch (pictured above with a leatherback turtle), a senior majoring in marine biology at Stetson, is working alongside Gibbs on her most recent project.

“Jennifer is researching the age and growth of catfish, particularly looking at males versus females. She is analyzing the catfish otoliths (ear-stones) to determine growth rate and age,” said Gibbs. “Jennifer will separate males and females and compare them to available data and develop a paper with the results, hopefully something we can later publish. We have had seniors in the department working on previous research, so the study Jennifer is conducting will provide enough data to improve upon studies already done and will allow us to demonstrate more accurate findings.”

“As a marine biology student, one of the most rewarding things is making a difference through your work,” said Gooch. “This research will allow us to help Blue Spring by providing sufficient data to design a plan to control a very invasive species.

“The practical experience I’m getting through this project is not only giving me an in-depth look at the scholarly world of freshwater studies, but it is also teaching me the necessary skills to continue researching other species of fish throughout my career, and that is very rewarding,” said Gooch.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Gooch plans to pursue a master’s degree in marine biology after graduating from Stetson in May 2015. As she is about to start her last year as an undergraduate, Gooch continues to intern and volunteer in the marine biology field, both locally and internationally.

“After volunteering at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Fla., last year, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Grenada this summer working with leatherback turtles, which are the largest species of sea turtles,” said Gooch. “We were based in Levera Beach, the third-largest nesting area for these turtles in the world. Studying the nesting habits of this species helped me determine that I definitely want to work with larger animals and outdoors as much as possible.”

The Marine Biology program continually posts local opportunities for students to pursue. After all, experiential learning is a big part of the program’s curriculum.

“Many of our students intern at local organizations such as the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, which is a great place to learn and acquire some practical experience,” said Gibbs. “Our department is constantly posting local opportunities for students to pursue, and we encourage students to apply. But a small percentage of our students also look for internships out of state or abroad, like Jennifer. Getting internships benefit students immensely, particularly since they are able to see the wide array of jobs that are out there in both marine and aquatic studies fields.”

By Michael van Oppen