UNCW Biologist Publishes in Prominent Ecology Journal

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Stuart Borrett, associate professor in the UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology, has recently published research in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution. The article “enaR: An R package for Ecosystem Network Analysis,” co-authored with Harvard Forest post-doctoral fellow Matthew K. Lau, reports the results of a long-term project conducted in Borrett’s laboratory.  

The article describes the R software package that enables scientists to more easily develop and apply Ecosystem Network Analysis (ENA) to ecosystem models.  ENA is a set of algorithms used to investigate the fundamental structure and function of ecosystems. Scientists have used these analyses in many ways including the analysis of food webs, biogeochemical cycling in ecosystems and city sustainability.

In Borrett’s laboratory, graduate student David Hines has been using ENA to investigate the potential impacts of sea level rise  and saltwater intrusion on the nitrogen cycle in the Cape Fear Estuary.  

“Nitrogen is an important nutrient in aquatic ecosystems, but when it is too abundant it becomes a water pollutant,” said Borrett. “Some microbial processes in the estuary can remove the nitrogen from the water (i.e, denitrification), and we were curious to know how these processes might be affected by sea water intrusion further upstream.”

Hines’ initial work suggests that the capacity of the estuary to remove the nitrogen may not change with the sea water intrusion, but that the ecosystem uses different processes to accomplish the same ecosystem service. Following a somewhat different approach, colleagues in China and Italy have been applying the ENA methods to evaluate sustainability of cities. Thus, there are many ways that the analyses might be used to address important ecological and environmental questions.  

Borrett perceives ENA to be in a maturation phase. “This software contributes to this maturation by bringing together tools and algorithms developed by multiple investigators into one toolbox — many for the first time.  We selected to build the toolbox in R in part because the software is open-scource and it is freely available to colleagues around the world.  We hope that the software continues to develop through collaboration with and contributions from our colleagues. The tool also lets ecologists easily connect to other tools in R to apply algorithms from Social Network Analysis, building bridges among disciplines with similar analytical tools.” 

Prior to joining the faculty at UNCW, Borrett was a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology.