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James Douglass Faculty Research Page

Benthic Ecology Laboratory

Identity and Mission:

The Benthic Ecology Laboratory (BEL) is a group of people, based in the Marine and Earth Sciences department in The Water School at FGCU, who are dedicated to the study of aquatic, bottom-dwelling life. Our three-part mission is to:

    1. Advance the science of benthic ecology by systematically gathering, organizing, and disseminating reliable information about benthic ecosystems.
    2. Advocate for the effective conservation and management of benthic ecosystems in SW Florida by studying human impacts and ecosystem responses and communicating our knowledge and recommendations.
    3. Provide experiential education and part-time employment opportunities for students pursuing careers in the natural sciences.

Key personnel:

    1. James Douglass is the principle investigator (PI) of the BEL. James is an Associate Professor in the Marine and Earth Sciences department who teaches undergraduate Marine Science courses, advises MS Environmental Science graduate students, and conducts original, grant-funded research on a wide range of benthic ecosystems from freshwater wetlands to offshore reefs. [link to faculty profile page]
    2. Graduate students in The Water School’s MS Environmental Science program form the core of the BEL, each working to complete a thesis research project tied in with an aspect of benthic ecology. In addition to conducting their own research, the graduate students handle serious responsibilities including collecting and organizing data for grant-funded research, ordering and maintaining laboratory and field equipment, ensuring safe boating and diving, and training undergraduate researchers. Current BEL graduate students in the program are listed below, and alumni of the program are listed at the end with links to their theses and publications.
      • Madison Sims (entered Fall 2021)
      • Avery Renshaw (entered Fall 2022)
      • Matthew “Cole” Tillman (entered Fall 2022)
    3. Undergraduate researchers are an important part of the BEL. Our undergraduate lab members usually begin as volunteers just looking for experience or service learning hours. However, as they get more experienced they may take on more formal commitments to the lab such as senior internships, senior research projects, or paid employment as lab assistants. Some of the undergraduate students currently involved at the BEL are:
      • Kylie Schwab
      • Benjamin Rikon
      • Mackenzie Pruitt
      • Lauren Tracey
      • Molly Bittner

Ongoing Research and Conservation Efforts:

    1. Detention Pond Plant and Water Quality Restoration- We are working with a neighborhood in Bonita Springs to improve the water quality and ecological functioning of their pond by encouraging more plants to grow in the pond’s littoral zone, and testing out non-herbicide methods of removing invasive plants. This project involves learning to identify and survey wetland and freshwater plants, testing water quality monthly, and pulling out certain weeds. Currently two students (Tori Guarino and Carter Oleckna) are currently leading the pond restoration and monitoring effort for their senior research projects in Biology. Other undergraduate students like Kylie Schwab are expanding the research to wet and dry detention ponds right here on the FGCU campus. This work is done with the help of FGCU Biology Department botanist Dr. Jay Horn.
    2. Vallisneria americana epifaunal community characterization. This project is lead by graduate student Madison Sims. She is analyzing the epifaunal (small animal) communities associated with restored tape grass (Vallisneria americana) beds in the Caloosahatchee Estuary. The project is funded by Johnson Engineering Incorporated, and the plan is to expand to also characterizing the epifaunal communities in a healthier area of tape grass, further north in Florida in a beautiful place called Crystal River. The point of the project is to be able to quantify the benefits of tape grass restoration in terms of the amount of “fish food” (small invertebrates) that grows in association with the grass beds.
    3. Caloosahatchee discharge impacts on SW Florida continental shelf benthos and eutrophication processes- We began 2022 with a new grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of coastal nutrient pollution on the seabed offshore; in 5-20 meter deep water that we need to scuba dive to study. Our collaborators on this project include Drs. Puspa Adhikari, Hidetoshi Urakawa, and Michael Parsons from the FGCU Water School, and Dr. Rick Bartleson from the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. Cole Tillman is the BEL graduate student on this project. Click below to a link to a video from one of the sites we are surveying: 20 m deep “240 ledge” off the coast of Fort Myers.
    4. Estero Bay seagrass propeller scar mapping and protection. Students in the lab and Dr. Douglass are working with the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve and FGCU GIS specialist Dhruvkukmar Bhatt to make maps of boat propeller scars in Estero Bay and analyze changes over time. We do it by tracing propeller scars in aerial photos. Most of the tracing has been done by Lauren Tracey, which is apt. We saw an increase in the amount of scarring from 2002 – 2011, and from 2011-2020, which is alarming. Another component of this project is that we are working to mark no-motor zones with buoys to protect parts of the seagrass bed in Estero Bay, and we’ll do more monitoring inside and outside the protected areas to see if the protections make a difference. Click below to link to a GIS “Story Map” describing propeller scarring and our mapping effort. 
    5. Naples Bay Oyster Reef restoration monitoring funded by the City of Naples Natural Resources Department. This is an ongoing project where we do mapping and monitoring of artificial oyster reefs in Naples Bay about. The graduate student who worked on this project, Rachel Pinel, graduated recently, but undergraduate students have still be helping with monitoring and working on spin-off projects involving details of the oyster reef restoration.

Recent scientific publications by BEL members:

  • JG Douglass, RH Chamberlain, Y Wan, PH Doering (2020) Submerged vegetation responses to climate variation and altered hydrology in a subtropical estuary: interpreting 33 years of change. Estuaries and Coasts. 19 pp. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12237-020-00721-4
  • JG Douglass, R Paperno, EA Reyier, AH Hines (2018) Fish and seagrass communities vary across a marine reserve boundary, but seasonal variation in small fish abundance overshadows top-down effects of large consumer exclosures. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 507: 39-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jembe.2018.07.003
  • SC McAskill, JG Douglass (2017) Salinity and temperature alter Pomacea maculata herbivory rates on Vallisneria americana. Journal of Molluscan Studies doi:10.1093/mollus/eyx034
  • JL Ruesink, JJ Stachowicz, PL Reynolds, C Boström, M Cusson, J Douglass, J Eklöf, AH Engelen, M Hori, K Hovel, K Iken, PO Moksnes, M Nakaoka, MI O'Connor, JL Olsen, EE Sotka, MA Whalen, JE Duffy (2017) Form-function relationships in a marine foundation species depend on scale: a shoot to global perspective from a distributed ecological experiment. Oikos doi:10.1111/oik.04270
  • MES Bracken, JG Douglass, V Perini, GJ Trussell (2017) Spatial scale mediates the effects of biodiversity on marine primary producers. Ecology 98:1434-1443

Graduate student alumni of the BEL and their theses:

  • Brondum M. Krebs (2022) Eutrophication and the Caloosahatchee: a Quantitative Assessment of Nutrient Sequestration by Vallisneria americana
  • Sarah E. Harrington (2022) Causes and Consequences of Epiphyte Accumulation on Seagrasses in the Caloosahatchee River Estuary, Florida (USA)
  • Rachel E. Pinel (2021) Naples Bay oyster restoration monitoring and copper pollution assessment.
  • Lisa M. Rickards (2018) Seagrass abundance and distribution in relation to changing environmental factors in Estero Bay, Florida.
  • Thomas J. Behlmer Jr. (2016) Indirect effects of freshwater discharges on seagrass beds in Southwest Florida: mesograzers as mediators of epiphyte growth?
  • Shannan C. McAskill (2015) Interactive effects of environmental stressors and the invasive apple snail, Pomacea maculata, on tapegrass, Vallisneria americana.

Recent grant support to the BEL:

  • US Environmental Protection Agency- Influence of Caloosahatchee Discharge on SW Florida Shelf Benthos and Eutrophication Processes. 2021-2023. $350,000
  • Fairwinds Homeowners Association. FGCU foundation donation supporting student research at Fairwinds wet detention pond. 2021-2022. $1500
  • Martin Foundation- Donation for seagrass research in Estero Bay. 2019-2020. $30,000
  • US Environmental Protection Agency. Enhanced water quality and seagrass monitoring in the Caloosahatchee Estuary. 2019-2021. $264,039
  • Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan Restoration Funding Program. Quantifying the water quality benefits of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) restoration, 2020-2021. $45,000. With Edwin Everham and David Ceilley. 
  • FGCU Scholarship-research Venture Fund Committee. Seagrass Health and Restoration: Sediment Dynamics. $16,780. With David Fugate.
  • South Florida Water Management District. Ecological and Environmental Scientific and Technology Support Services: University Support. With several colleagues from the FGCU Marine and Ecological Sciences Department. Status granted but no monies received yet.
  • City of Naples, FL. Naples Bay Oyster Reef Restoration Ecological Monitoring, 2018-2021. $50,000. With Serge Thomas.
  • Snook and Gamefish Foundation, subcontract through Johnson Engineering Incorporated: Vallisneria americana restoration research assistance, 2018 $5000
  • National Science Foundation, Collaborative Research: The tropicalization of Western Atlantic seagrass beds, 2018-2020 $57,496
  • South Florida Water Management District, Resolving Uncertainties in Restoration of Seagrasses in the Caloosahatchee Estuary: Epiphytes, 2015-2016 $25,000

Public talks and media appearances

  1. June 2022- Weedy or Wonderful? What science says about water plants. Florida Department of Environmental Protection South District “Linkup” webinar.

Synopsis: Aquatic vegetation might be seen as a weedy nuisance, but examining Florida's water plants in the light of ecological science reveals their beautiful diversity, their environmental benefits and the importance of protecting them.