Response of Seagrass Communities to Disturbance in Species-Rich Tropical Ecosystems

EPA Grant Number: F5E11132
Title: Response of Seagrass Communities to Disturbance in Species-Rich Tropical Ecosystems
Investigators: Ferdie, Meredith
Institution: University of Virginia
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: August 1, 2005 through July 31, 2008
Project Amount: $102,824
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2005) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships


Seagrass communities, which occupy shallow coastal regions throughout the world, are widely recognized for their ecological and economic significance. These highly productive systems are threatened by natural and anthropogenic disturbances such as eutrophication, fishing practices, sedimentation, storm events and climate change. Despite the litany of studies on this subject, there is a clear paucity of research on tropical systems relative to temperate. Because tropical systems have greater species diversity, we have a weak understanding of how these multi-species systems will respond to different levels of disturbance. Developing countries are especially at risk to due to their lack of financial and scientific resources. Mozambique, a developing country in East Africa, is an ideal location for both novel and applied research because the extensive and accessible seagrass communities contain high biodiversity and are among the least studied in the world. The strong reliance of local livelihoods upon coastal resources, combined with growing threats of coastal development, highlights the need to understand the resilience of these systems. The objective of this research is to examine the response and recovery of high diversity tropical seagrass communities to different disturbance events using observational and experimental approaches.

Seagrass communities are ecologically and economically important. These habitats are threatened by natural and human disturbances such as eutrophication, fishing, and storm events. Mozambique, Africa, is ideal for research on seagrass ecosystems because the coastal environment is relatively pristine, contains high biodiversity, and is among the least studied throughout the world. A 3-year project will examine the response of seagrass communities to disturbance using mapping techniques and field experiments. This project will help us predict seagrass recovery following disturbance events.


I propose a three-year project that that will address the response and recovery of species-rich tropical seagrass communities to different types and levels of disturbance. The project design involves two separate, but related objectives. First, I will identify spatial and temporal patterns of seagrass distribution across natural resource gradients using intensive field sampling and GIS maps. These patterns will be used to identify general life history attributes of co-existing seagrass species, which can then be used to make specific predictions regarding seagrass response to disturbance. Second, I will experimentally test these predictions by performing long-term field manipulations in mixed-species seagrass meadows that will mimic various types (fishing, sedimentation, eutrophication) and intensities (low, high) of disturbance.

Expected Results:

I predict that species-specific life history traits of each seagrass species will determine the outcome of seagrass community response to disturbance. Intermediate levels of disturbance will foster and maintain mixed-meadows with high diversity, while intense levels of disturbance will result in biomass loss. This project has both scientific and societal applications. Understanding how natural systems respond to alterations is vital for conservation efforts (e.g., delineating marine reserves) and resource management (e.g., effects of current fishing practices). Data from this project can be applied to models that predict seagrass recovery following disturbances and will enhance our understanding of tropical seagrass systems. This project will provide high quality baseline data for future research efforts at the Marine Biological Station on Inhaca Island, Mozambique. The taxonomic similarity between Caribbean and Indo-Pacific seagrasses allows for comparisons between North American and East African seagrass ecology. This project is designed to augment our understanding of relatively understudied seagrass species, improve our ability to predict the effects of disturbance in coastal regions, foster international collaboration, and address human needs in a developing country.

Supplemental Keywords:

Seagrass, Indo-Pacific, disturbance, recovery, sedimentation, eutrophication, Mozambique, East Africa, submerged aquatic vegetation, Inhaca Island, diversity, nutrient enrichment, storm events, RFA, Scientific Discipline, Geographic Area, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, Aquatic Ecosystems & Estuarine Research, Aquatic Ecosystem, Environmental Monitoring, International, coastal ecosystem, eutrophication, anthropogenic stress, ecosystem monitoring, climate change, fisheries, fish communities, anthropogenic impact, aquatic plants, Mozambique, aquatic ecosystems, trophic interactions, seagrass, ecosystem response, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV)

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2006
  • 2007
  • Final