Benthic Ecology Laboratory


Steve measuring fish caught in a seineResearchers in the benthic ecology laboratory at the University of North Carolina Wilmington are taking a population and community approach to understanding coastal habitats. Using infauna, epifauna and nekton as indicators, we are interested in factors controlling food web structure in coastal and estuarine habitats, the importance of various habitat types, especially oyster, seagrass and salt marsh, as nurseries and foraging areas, and the influence of anthropogenic changes on coastal communities.

Specific ongoing studies include:

  • Influence of nutrient additions (bottom up controls) and predation (top-down controls) one estuarine food web structure. Through experimental and comparative studies, we are examining microalgal, infaunal, and nekton responses to anthropogenic nutrient inputs as well as the potential influence of predation in masking food web responses.

  • Use of structural habitats in coastal systems. Habitats providing a physical structure for refuge or foraging are considered to be important for many marine and estuarine organisms. Ongoing projects examine the relative function of different structural habitats, such as oysters, seagrass beds, and marsh islands, and how landscape parameters such as proximity to other habitats or patch characteristics affect patterns of use.

  • Oyster reef ecology: There is increased interest in the potential function of oyster reefs, including impacts of oysters on water quality as well as possible stock differentiation based on water quality parameters and as important nursery habitats. We are conducting a variety of studies aimed at examining these functions in natural systems.

  • Cape Fear River studies. The benthic ecology laboratory is a participant in the Cape Fear River Program, administered through the UNCW Center for Marine Science, which seeks to understand community dynamics of benthic and epibenthic fauna in this largest North Carolina river system as well as the effects of development on the river's health.

  • Effects of disturbance on bottom communities. Several current studies are examining the influence of biotic (e.g. bioturbation by burrowing worms and shrimp) and anthropogenic (e.g. dredging) disturbances on benthic community structure.

  • Wetland benthic communities. Researchers in the benthic ecology laboratory are currently beginning a long term comparison of infauna inhabiting various types of estuarine riparian wetland plant communities with the objective of understanding how changes in emergent plant composition may affect the associated animal community. We are also examining the potential impacts of increasing tidal inundation on the infauna, epifauna and nekton utilizing estuarine marshes and swamps.

  • Juvenile blue crab ecology (CRUI project): This project examines juvenile blue crab distribution and utilization of low salinity estuarine systems. Particular emphasis is on a multi-disciplinary approach to costs and benefits of using low salinity habitats, including physiological stress, energetics, aspects of growth, and predation risk along the riverine gradient.