Intraspecific Variation Influences Natural Settlement of Eastern Oysters

D.SmeeDelbert Smee is an Associate Professor with tenure at Texas A&M – University Corpus Christi. He completed undergraduate and MS degrees in Biology from Piedmont College and Georgia Southern University Respectively. After a 3 year stint teaching community college, he returned to Georgia Tech to complete a doctoral degree in Applied Biology.

He is a broadly trained ecologist and focus on community ecology and food web interactions. He is also interested in how biodiversity, both genetic diversity and species diversity affect communities. Most of his work in the past several years has been in the Western Gulf of Mexico although he has done extensive research in Maine on invasive green crabs and their impacts on rocky intertidal communities. Recently he published a paper titled: ‘Intraspecific variation influences natural settlement of eastern oysters’ in the journal Oecologia.

Background of the study

Understanding how communities work is essential for proper conservation and management. The ultimate goal of my work with oyster reefs is to determine the best ways to protect and restore these communities. In this study, we sought to determine why larval oysters select where to settle and grow. For oyster reefs to remain viable, new oysters must find and elect to attach and grow on a given reef. We were trying to learn how they make this decision and what effect increasing the diversity of oysters might have on a decision by oysters to select a particular reef.

Additional research

The next steps are to use new molecular techniques to better understand genetic differences between oysters. Then, we can begin to relate changes in genetic diversity to other factors like harvesting or water quality. Then, we can show how different factors influence genetic diversity that have broader consequences for the community as a whole. In this case, a loss of diversity causes fewer oysters to select that reef and may lead to reef decline.

Increasing awareness

As a scientist, part of my role is to communicate findings like this broadly. I routinely discuss my research in classes and in outreach at K-12 venues and civic clubs. I was not trained to publish in the popular media, but, I have learned in the past year that this can be a powerful venue with which to educate the general public about conservation and other important, relevant issues.

Advice from the field

Marine Biology, as with most fields, is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Students need a solid education in science including chemistry, mathematics, and biology. Marine Biology is a rewarding career, but, it is very competitive and it takes intelligence, hard-work, and patience to be successful. It also likely means students will not find jobs without graduate education or specialized training as an undergraduate in mathematics or chemistry for example.

About the department

The Life Sciences Department is one of the largest on campus. We have ~1800 undergraduate majors and ~ 100 graduate students and 30 faculty. We have had a very successful MS program and in 2008 initiated a Ph.D. program in marine biology in collaboration with Texas A&M – College Station and Texas A&M – Galveston. Given our unique location on an island near the Gulf of Mexico, it is perhaps unsurprising that we have built a successful marine biology program that is quickly becoming among the best in the Gulf.