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Reseach Spotlight: Sapelo Island

by Carole VanSickle













When tobacco-fortune heir R.J. Reynolds purchased Sapelo Island, a small barrier island off the coast of Georgia, he had both personal interest and altruistic intentions. While enjoying the game-hunting, experimenting with farming techniques and lavishly entertaining his friends, he built a gymnasium for a local school, established a camp for underprivileged children, and generally thought his legacy there would be these and other good works within the community — which he employed at one time nearly in its entirety. But ever since Reynolds’ wife, Anne Marie, in a major philanthropic endeavor, gave almost the whole thing to the state in 1953, R.J. has been largely remembered on Sapelo Island through an academic legacy instead — he established the foundation that long supported the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute (UGAMI), a solid enterprise with researchers involved in a broad range of scientific pursuits.

“Scientists have come from everywhere to study the Indian mounds, the Spanish ruins and, of course, the salt marsh,” said Bill Miller, UGAMI’s director. “This is great for students because they are exposed not only to research opportunities at UGA but also to researchers and ideas from all over the world.”

“Salt marshes have always been important as a nursery for all kinds of marine organisms,” said Miller. “But as the discipline of environmental science has evolved, so has the institute.” In the early days, scientists needed to observe marsh ecosystems at a “local” scale to develop an understanding of the individual interactions, but now many have developed a concern with the big picture and how all aspects of the marsh, estuary, land, and coastal ocean work together in the global picture, Miller said. UGAMI, located in the middle of a National Estuarine Research Reserve on a nearly unspoiled barrier island, is an ideal template for this kind of research — as evidenced by the variety of investigations underway both by resident and guest researchers. “We have a solid resident group, supplemented by a flux of Ph.D. scientists through the facility,” he said. “It makes for constant and stimulating diversity.”

The resident research faculty positions, which form a core for visiting science and education programs, generally turn over in about a three-to-five year cycle — but some researchers fall in love with the place and remain indefinitely. “Here, living on the island, I can do things in scales of time and space that are impossible anywhere else,” said Ron Kneib, UGAMI’s senior research scientist and ecologist , who has been at UGAMI for over 25 years. He studies how structural differences in the coastal landscape affect the growth rates of marine organisms, such as fish and shrimp, — an interest that requires constant monitoring of subjects and their environment. Organisms often are more abundant or grow faster in complex environments. A tidal environment, for example, is constantly changing and, in turn, presenting its occupants with diverse decisions about where to swim and what to eat — a prerequisite to robust ecological health.

"Scientists have come from everywhere to study the Indian mounds, the Spanish ruins and, of course, the salt marsh," said Bill Miller, UGAMI's director. "This is great for students because they are exposed not only to research opportunities at UGA but also to researchers and ideas from all over the world."

“Measuring growth rates and population densities allows us to determine how much an environment is producing,” Kneib said, “which has interesting implications for urban development when combined with changes in landscape structure because — perhaps surprisingly — humans tend to simplify their environments. Although you can simplify and simplify, at least for a while, with little impact on marine-organism production, there is a threshold at which small changes in the landscape cause dramatic drops in production. I’m interested in finding that point, as it may be a very important consideration for future sustainable development planning everywhere.”

Two other researchers are residents of the institute at this time: Melissa Booth, a microbial ecologist; and Rebecca Effler, a wetland ecologist who is studying the impact of changes in the estuarine forest on the salt marsh.

Booth is working with several researchers on the UGA campus and elsewhere within the university system of Georgia to study life processes — biochemical (making protein and DNA, for example) and behavioral (eating and mating) — of microscopic organisms at Sapelo. “One thing that makes this site unique is the multitude of environments in such a small area,” she said. “You can look at the salt marsh, the coastal ocean, the open ocean, the inland forest and streams all at once and see how the processes change from place to place. An organism that looks and behaves one way in one environment may be totally different just a few miles away.” Such comparisons have major implications for understanding how bacteria and viruses function under different conditions, potentially helping scientists to pinpoint their weaknesses and thus better treat or prevent various infections.

Effler, meanwhile, is taking an indirect approach to the marsh and coastal community: she studies the inland forests. “Lots of people have studied the marshes surrounding Sapelo Island” she said, “but little research has been conducted in the forest. Forest processes like runoff from the island affect the marsh, and the subsequent interactions affect the ocean, so it’s important to understand these interactions across all island systems.” Effler’s background also includes entomology — the study of insects — and she has started charting the effects of several exotic species on the native flora of the island.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of UGAMI’s unique research site is its permanence. “You can come, do your research and get your results, then come back in 10 years and it will all still be here,” said Jon Garbisch, a program coordinator and the School of Marine Programs’ liaison to the institute. “As a geologist, I’m very aware of the time scale of things, and it’s important to remember that this facility is enhanced by its continuity. Year after year, you can watch the grass grow, the microbes tions shift. That’s not a given in very many places any more.”


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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