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Contact: Christine Payton Sept. 17, 2010
(337) 482-6397, payton@louisiana.edu
 
 
UL LAFAYETTE RESEARCHERS TO ANALYZE GULF’S RICHNESS
NSF grants awarded to researchers to study mammals, ecosystem
 

The deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico are one of the unique ocean environments in the world, and researchers at University of Louisiana at Lafayette are poised to study the biological richness of this important energy region of the United States.

“ Deepwater environments are part of our energy future; and must be managed in concert with the unique biological richness of the fisheries that contribute to the economy of our nation,” explained Dr. Robert Twilley, vice president for Research at UL Lafayette. “This balance of energy and environmental resources are both of national significance as we learn from the Deepwater Horizon disaster for ways to more effectively managed this outer continental shelf ecosystem.”

Mammals are one example of the rich biodiversity that use this coastal ecosystem for their habitat. UL Lafayette researchers are using acoustics to collect population data on these mammals.

Six acoustic devices that capture the sounds or 'clicks' of marine mammals are currently recording from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. These Environmental Acoustic Recording Systems (EARS) are detecting the sounds of beaked whales, sperm whales and dolphins near the site of the BP oil spill.

The recording experiment is one part of a $192,197 NSF Rapid grant awarded to Drs. Azmy Ackleh, Nabendu Pal and Natalia Sidorovskaia from UL Lafayette. These researchers are investigating the short and long term effects of the oil spill on the Gulf's marine mammal population. The deployed EARS began recording in the second week of September and will record continuously for 12 days.

The project is divided into three components: the first being the acoustic recording experiment. The second phase involves the development of statistical models, using the acoustic cues, to estimate the population of these marine mammals. The third includes a mathematical model to describe the time dynamics of the marine mammal population. This model will be used to evaluate the long-term impact of the spill on these populations.

“ Has the resident whale population near the spill been affected? If so, how and to what extent? This is what we are trying to understand,” said Ackleh, professor of mathematics. “Our previous acoustic data provide some understanding about the abundance of marine mammal population prior to the oil spill. The new data may reveal whether there has been a change in this population abundance ”

Data collected in 2001, 2002 and 2007 by the Littoral Acoustic Development Center (LADC), of which Dr. Sidorovsikaia is a member of, will serve as a baseline for the study. Some of the data were collected as close as nine miles from the incident site of the spill, said Ackleh. The previously collected data will be compared with the data being gathered now.

The statistical models will be developed to estimate the marine mammal populations for particular species - like the sperm whale, beaked whale, etc. “Once statistical population estimates are available, mathematical models will be developed to predict the long term effects of the spill on the marine mammal population” said Ackleh.

The project has broader impacts as well. It will not only assess the impact of the BP oil spill on marine species in the impacted area, but also can work as an example in the future for similar human or natural disasters. The theoretical models can also complement the other existing and ongoing research related to the oil spill, said Ackleh. Graduate students will work closely with the three researchers to gain first hand knowledge about his exciting interdisciplinary research. Depending on the outcome of this project, future research will be undertaken.

This is the second NSF Rapid grant awarded to UL Lafayette researchers studying the impact of the oil spill. Biology professors Dr. Darryl Felder and Dr. Suzanne Fredericq received a $185,600 grant to determine the impact of the BP oil spill on the Gulf's ecosystem.

“ Louisiana needs to know what kind of damage has been done by the BP oil spill this summer. The state is well served by having university faculty of this caliber,” said Dr. Bradd Clark, dean of the Ray P. Authement College of Sciences. “The National Science Foundation is very familiar with these researchers because of their previous grant work. NSF can rely on our faculty to do the needed research in a timely manner.”

Felder and Fredericq will lead two expeditions in the Gulf to revisit banks and pinnacles where offshore seaweeds and macrocrustaceans have previously been documented. The two, along with undergraduate and graduate students, will collect more samples then compare natural conditions to the impacted environment.

The professors documented a diverse range of algae and crustaceans from the Gulf's hard banks about 60 to 90 meters (roughly 180-280 feet) deep during NSF-funded expeditions from 2004 through 2006. They will revisit the same banks.

All material collected from each trip will be sorted, identified and the associated information will be entered into web-accessible databases. The electronic databases will ultimately link all organisms from a collection site and include information such as species name, key characters, life history and reproductive information, DNA information and organism health assessment.

Felder and Fredericq plan to resubmit a four-year proposal to NSF that builds on this project and previous ones. This would allow the teams to more comprehensively retrace and resample earlier routes.

They expect to head to the Gulf in November.

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About UL Lafayette
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is the second largest university in the state, with over 16,000 students. It's a public institution that awards bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. It includes diverse offerings from the humanities to scientific research and leads the nation in areas like computer science, biology and nursing. Its student-athletes - Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns - compete in NCAA Division I, the highest level of collegiate competition.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Document last revised Monday, September 20, 2010 4:27 PM

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