National Science Foundation Grant Recognizes Ecological Studies at Colby

Colby Faculty, Students, Local and National Research Partners Poised to Make Advances Using Food Webs to Predict Marine Extinctions

With extinctions increasing dramatically in recent years due to climate change, understanding—and being able to predict—the dynamics of ecological systems has never been more imperative. A three-year grant from the National Science Foundation is putting Colby faculty, students, and key community partners on a course to make advances in this vital area of inquiry. In a research project that examines the predator-prey-competitor relationships of dozens of coastal species in the Gulf of Maine, one of the fastest warming areas on the planet, Colby researchers and partners seek to improve statistical modeling of food webs. Their work could have wide-ranging implications for how scientists everywhere can better predict the effects of extinctions on ecological systems.

Though focused in the area of marine science, the grant is just the latest example of how grant funding drives forward Dare Northward initiatives and creates exciting possibilities for Colby to take the lead on issues of regional and global significance.

A Novel Approach

Ecologists often characterize the basic functioning of a food web as akin to a Jenga block tower. If you remove blocks at the base—that is, if foundational prey species become unavailable to predators higher up—the whole ecosystem is poised for collapse. In the Gulf of Maine, the blue mussel represents one of those lower blocks. A water-filtering organism, it is the preferred food of such predators as the sea star and provides shelter to a number of smaller organisms. So, what happens to those other species if the blue mussel—already in sharp decline—disappears completely? What are the ramifications for the functioning of the food web? These are among the questions that Colby’s Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Biology Allison Barner will examine, in collaboration with fellow investigator Laura Dee, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

In Colorado Dee will spearhead the development of food web models that will synthesize existing data on about 100 Gulf of Maine species and generate predictions about hypothetical extinctions. Meanwhile Barner will oversee key fieldwork that will bring Colby students to Maine’s rocky shores to empirically test the predictions. Their data will, in turn, be incorporated into the modeling. It’s a novel approach that combines number crunching in the lab and data collection on the ground to advance scientific knowledge. 

“There is a lot of power in being able to move between these two modes of inquiry—between the theoretical and the observed, and then back to the theoretical, and back to the observed,” said Barner. “In some ways it’s an absolute dream project to be able to work on a fundamental question—’What happens when a species goes extinct?’—and then to be able to go out and test it in a system that I love, in a system I’ve spent more than a decade studying.” 

Allen Island: An Ideal Site for Fieldwork

Research opportunities for faculty scholarship—and for student experiences beyond the classroom and campus lab—have become integral to the fabric of a Colby science education in part due to Colby’s relationships with key partners. One of them is Allen Island, where Barner’s fieldwork will be conducted. It is an ideal site for studying the organisms of the rocky intertidal ecosystem, which is only revealed to researchers at low tide. Allen Island’s facilities will enable researchers to stay for several days at a time, a few times a month, and conveniently scramble down to the big boulders, even in the wee hours of the morning.

Among other activities, the fieldwork teams will use crowbars to remove mussels, barnacles, and a species of seaweed at selected sites, simulating extinction events, but at a small scale and in a controlled experiment. Every month, they’ll keep scraping away and tracking the impact of this “targeted species removal” on the structure and stability of the rocky intertidal food web, helping to bridge the gap between what scientific models expect will happen and what actually happens in real life.

Students Dig Into the Data

Back on campus, Colby students will participate in related lab work and data analysis. Barner, who is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her research, said, “Students are in this process from beginning to end.” Collaboration and mentorship are integral to scientific scholarship, and Barner is excited for her students to have novel opportunities to interact with graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder on what she calls “very computationally intense” work. Both in her research and in her day-to-day classroom teaching, Barner seeks to provide the next generation of marine scientists with instruction in quantitative and data science. She said, “That kind of training is absolutely essential to become a biologist now.”

Barner also hopes her work will be a catalyst for projects initiated by students themselves, whether on the fieldwork side or the data side. “Ideally I would love to have students running their own independent research projects alongside the experiment we’re doing,” said Barner. “I’m excited for students to really dig in and ask some of their own research questions.”

Community Outreach

The fate of the blue mussel is of consequence well beyond the species of the rocky intertidal realm. What Barner and Dee discover could have implications for the sustainability of fisheries and other issues that are economically important to the Gulf of Maine’s human inhabitants. An outreach component of their work will involve partnering with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and other community entities to provide educational initiatives for K–12 students and the general public. If climate change has taught us anything, notes Barner, it’s the vital importance of scientific communication, and she’s already beginning to envision how her project could create opportunities for her students to gain experience with this kind of community engagement. Engagement is a two-way street. 

“I think there’s a lot of room for community building, and I have a lot to learn. Funding for scientific research is never just about funding only just the production of knowledge; supporting science also supports new generations of learners, teachers, tinkerers, creative problem-solvers, far beyond a single academic institution like Colby,” said Barner. “If there’s one thing I’m certain about the outcome of this research, it’s that I know it will lead us in exciting directions that we would have never been able to dream of, without the support of the NSF and the Colby community.” 

Photos (from top): Colby students doing a field survey of species in the rocky intertidal and mussels growing among algae at low tide.