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USF professor awarded BP grant

TAMPA, Fla. -- A crucial University of South Florida research project examining the impact of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the often overlooked ecosystem of Gulf beaches will continue after winning a coveted grant from a BP-funded research program.

Susan Bell, chair of USF’s Department of Integrative Biology, was one of 17 researchers nationwide awarded one of the stop-gap grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. The grant, estimated to be less than $50,000 during the next three months, will allow Bell to continue an examination of the last year’s epic spill.

The project, originally funded through a Rapid Response Grant from the National Science Foundation last summer as the spill unfolded, is a detailed examination on how ghost crabs -- a key link in the beach food web -- were affected when the zones in which they hunt for food were oiled and the mechanical cleaning of beaches that followed further disrupted their environment.

Early findings from the project show that Panhandle beaches, which had high densities of ghost crab populations before the spill, had significant declines to low levels by last fall and remained low when surveyed again this spring.

Bell’s research will continue to examine whether ghost crab populations on the Panhandle beaches that were oiled continue to show declining numbers and how that might impact other beach animals, such as seagulls and raccoons, who eat the ghost crabs.

The ghost crab is known as the “custodian” of the beach for its wide-ranging appetite and the central role it plays in the beach food web. Ghost crabs release their eggs offshore and the small crabs work their way to the beaches where they burrow into sediments and sometimes in the soft dune sands.

At one site surveyed by the research team, Fort Pickens Beach near Pensacola, scientists also found more than 1,500 minute tar balls or clumped oil pieces despite BP’s cleanup efforts. The continued research project will now revisit the beach to see if the tar balls continue to be found in the swash zone, which is an important part of the beach habitat for animal and bird feeding.

Bell noted that cleanup activities on oiled Panhandle beaches included the use of large equipment to dig up sediment from the dune line to the top of the swash zones. Sediments were then sifted through a screen to remove any materials including large tar balls, plants which washed ashore and crabs before the “cleaned” sand was re-deposited on the beach.

The long-term impact of that cleaning operation on the beach ecosystem is unknown and needs to be studied, she said.

The Gulf Research Initiative board recently announced $1.5 million in grants as part of the oil giant’s $500 million commitment to fund research on the spill for the next 10 years. Two additional rounds of research funding totaling $45 million also will be available to scientists in the near future, the group said in a news release.

In 2010, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of Florida’s marine science research institutes and includes USF, was provided $10 million from BP to fund spill-related research projects. USF researchers head six projects, including a wide-ranging look at the impact of the spill on the offshore ecosystem featured in the latest episode of the PBS’ Changing Seas series.

The grants were decided by the 20-member GRI Research Board; FIO Acting Director Bill Hogarth serves on the board as an appointee of the Florida governor.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Research School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Integrative Biology  
Author: Vickie Chachere