July 7, 2014

Students Explore Biodiversity in Everglades and Florida Keys During Maymester Excursion

VALDOSTA – For three weeks, Dr. Joshua Reece, assistant professor of biology at Valdosta State University, led students on an excursion along the Georgia and Florida coasts weeks examining various ecosystems. The Maymester Coastal Biodiversity course allowed students to explore places like the Florida Keys, Everglades and Sapelo Island.

“While visiting each ecosystem, we discussed the plants and animals that made up each community, and evidence for how climate change has altered these ecosystems,” said Reece. “We also discussed how the current pattern of anthropogenic climate change would likely impact each of these ecosystems.”

Students spent three days at Sapelo Island, visiting salt marsh, coastal hammocks, and sampling the marine life from the rich waters surrounding Sapelo. Next, they snorkeled in a spring 15 miles from the Gulf coast of Florida. Students also visited the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and a Gulf coast beach to view the impacts of sea-level rise and climate change on these important coastal ecosystems.

“We then traveled to the Atlantic coast of Florida and the unique beaches of the Matanzas region, near Saint Augustine,” said Reece. “There students visited a moderately high wave energy beach, inspected the coquina rocks unique to this region, and walked through subtropical coastal hardwood hammocks. Lastly, we took a weeklong sojourn into the Florida Keys, staying at the MarineLab research station in Key Largo. There, students visited and learned about coral reefs, mangrove forests above and below water, coralline algal shoals, and seagrass beds.”

Students took a day trip to the Everglades and visited freshwater swamps, sawgrass, pine rockland forests, and slough habitats. At each of these sites, students investigated the characteristic biodiversity of plants and animals, how climate change and sea-level rise has impacted these areas in the past, how they are being impacted today, and what the future holds for these ecosystems. Students hiked, snorkeled and scuba dived in ecosystems to identify wildlife and then talked with experts about conservation issues.

“These types of hands-on courses are what excite students about biology and keep them engaged in the natural sciences,” Reece explained. “Another component of the course involved group research projects where students worked in small groups to teach their peers about each community and then write a scientific paper – synthesizing the literature on that community and proposing a research project related to human land-use and climate change in their favorite coastal natural community.”

Reece said the purpose of the course is to expose students to the tremendous biodiversity of the southeastern coastal plain, which is known as a global hotspot for several groups of plants and animals.

“I also wanted to make it clear that climate has changed throughout the geological history of this region and that the species that inhabit this area have adapted to those changes,” Reece added. “Also, the current pattern of climate change is driven by human action and while species have historically adapted to these changes, their ability to do so has been limited by human alterations to the environment. Students learned that while climate and sea-level have changed in the past, such changes occurred across a natural landscape, which only exists today in a few places throughout the southeast.”

This was Reece’s first time teaching this course. He plans to teach it again during future Maymesters.

Reece joined Valdosta State as an assistant professor in fall 2013. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Central Florida and a doctorate in biology from Washington University in St. Louis. His areas of research include coastal biodiversity and macroevolution. Reece has been featured on the popular science podcast, People Behind the Science, in a segment titled “Dr. Josh Reece: The Adventures of a Biodiversity Conservationist.”