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Julia York - Estuarine and Marine Benthic Ecology

Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC

Effect of Substrate on Species Richness of Fouling Communities:
A Comparison of Four Plastics

A typical method for studying fouling communities is to deploy experimental fouling panels.  Fouling panels have been used to study a wide variety of topics, such as settlement and recruitment, diversity, and community development.  However, there has been little research on the differences between the fouling communities formed on different substrates.  As fouling panels can be composed of any number of substrates, the findings obtained using one type of fouling panel may not be generalizable to communities formed on panels of a different material.  One material that has become increasingly prevalent in the marine environment is plastic.  Various plastics are used to make buoys, bridges, docks, ropes, sails, and artificial coral reefs.  Research is needed to determine the effects of plastic structures on marine ecosystems.  As such, I chose to compare the species richness of fouling communities formed on fouling panels composed of four different plastics.  The four plastic treatments were polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polypropylene (PP).  PET is recycled to make sails for sailboats.  HDPE is recycled into plastic lumber, which is used to build docks and bridges.  PVC is used in buoys, breakers, and artificial coral reefs.  Polypropylene is used in ropes and marine mattresses, devices used for erosion control.  The plastics were used to make experimental fouling panels.  The panels were deployed underneath docks at three sites, Carr’s Wharf (Mayo, MD), the SERC dock (Edgewater, MD), and the Galesville Community Pier (Galesville, MD). Panels were sampled once a week over a four-week period.  Species richness of sessile marine invertebrates was sampled using a dissecting microscope.  Communities on the panels included barnacles (Balanus improvisus), bryozoans (Bowerbankia gracilis, Conopeum sp.), mussels (Geukensia demissa), sponge, and tubeworms (Polydora sp.).  The effects of plastic, site, and time on the species richness of the communities were compared using an ANOVA.  The model was statistically significant, with a P value of 0.0003 and an R2 value of 0.38.  While plastic had no effect on the species richness of the communities, both time and site had a significant effect on richness.  The species richness of the communities at each of the sites was statistically different.  The communities at the SERC site had the highest species richness, while the communities at Carr’s Wharf had the lowest.  The communities at the one-week and two-week sampling dates were statistically different from one another.  Species richness increased from week one to week two.  Overall, my research has shown that habitat has a significant effect on the species richness of fouling communities, even over an area as small as a few miles.  Also, fouling communities on different types of plastics tend to have similar numbers of species.

Quote: The best part about my experience at SERC was the high level of autonomy I was given.  I had the freedom to design a project I was excited about, locate my own sites and materials, and interpret my results, all with a minimal amount of supervision.  While I had performed other research projects prior to this one, none gave me the confidence in my ability to successfully undertake all aspects of a research project that I gained from my SERC project.  This internship was a very empowering experience for me.

Funding provided by the Environmental Leadership Center at Warren Wilson College