Gulf Species Get a Second Chance at UAB

By Glenny Brock


oil spill impact
UAB biologists reflect on the ecological effects of the Gulf oil spill and its impact on their research in this video.

So far it seems that oil-slicked pelicans have been the sad mascots of the Gulf oil spill. Ever since the fatal explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, birds with greasy, tar-black feathers have been the decisive images of wildlife in peril. But pelicans aren’t the only Gulf animals in need of rescue from the vast slick.

UAB biologists are at the forefront of efforts to protect two species: diamondback terrapin turtles native to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and Gulf-native sea urchins in Florida’s upper peninsula. Although their work with these animals began as part of other research, the scientists have become noteworthy participants in the struggle to safeguard life in the Gulf.

Turtle Power

Far from the coast, about 120 adult diamondback terrapins are now in residence on the UAB campus, all hatched from eggs that biology professor Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., and his colleagues collected from Cedar Point Marsh on Dauphin Island. The turtles are part of a captive-rearing program that began in 2006 with the goal of keeping the diamondback terrapin off the endangered species list.

“The diamondback terrapin has an incredibly rich history in Alabama,” Wibbels says. “The state used to have thousands of terrapins. At one point, they were shipping up to 12,000 a year out of Alabama.”

Diamondback Turtle
UAB scientists have been working to stop the decline of diamondback turtles in Alabama's salt marshes since 2006.

All of those exported animals became the main ingredient for turtle soup, served in fancy restaurants from New York to New Orleans. But starting in the mid-1900s, increased development of crab fisheries started a serious decline in the terrapin population. Next came increased coastal development, followed by an increase in the number of raccoons and other natural predators. By the turn of the 21st century, the diamondbacks had almost disappeared from Alabama salt marshes. With the help of UAB biology professor Ken Marion, Ph.D., and doctoral student Andy Coleman, Wibbels began transporting terrapin eggs from the coast to the lab in Birmingham, hoping to revive the population.

“The point was to give these turtles a head start,” Wibbels explains. “We hatch and then raise them into really healthy adults. The goal was to release them as adults ready for nesting.”

Wibbels and his colleagues scrapped plans to release at least 50 adult turtles back at Cedar Point in mid-May. Although oil booms surround the marsh, it’s uncertain whether they will provide sufficient protection for the fragile habitat, particularly during hurricane season. If oil were to arrive in the Dauphin Island marshes, it could mean the decimation of a species just starting to make its way back.

For now, the turtles will stay at UAB. Wibbels plans to hatch another 50 eggs in the lab this fall, and to continue monitoring the marsh. “Like everybody else, we’re making decisions as the situation develops,” he says. “We’re going to continue to do everything we can for as long as we can.”

Saving Spiky

Elsewhere at UAB, roughly 500 sea urchins are also taking refuge. The sea urchin is a spiny creature, with sharp and colorful spines that make it look like an oceanic hedgehog or seawater Koosh ball. Its reproductive organs are considered a delicacy: At a good sushi bar, uni, or sea urchin roe, is often the most expensive item on the menu.

“It’s a major economic species,” explains Mickie Powell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology at UAB. “The Japanese pay top dollar for sea urchin, which has led to overfishing worldwide.”

Sea urchin
Sea urchins have been important subjects of UAB research for years, but protecting the population is now even more urgent in the wake of the oil spill disaster.

Back in 2004, Powell was part of a team led by UAB biology professor Stephen Watts, Ph.D., that received a two-year, $230,000 grant from the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to study the feasibility of building a land-based aquaculture system to farm sea urchins.

Then, in 2006, the sea urchin genome was sequenced, and it became clear that sea urchins were a valuable model for human embryonic development. Watts’s lab began to focus its efforts in that direction, but now, in the aftermath of the oil spill, his team has taken yet another turn—toward the preservation of a species in danger of total decimation.

“This is one of the few labs in the country that can raise urchins from egg to egg, through the whole reproductive cycle,” Powell says. The lab's sea urchins come from a study site at Cape San Blas in Florida’s St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

“It’s a jewel of pristine sea grass in the upper Panhandle, full of sea urchins and scallops,” Powell says. “We have about 20 years of data on sea urchins at that site—the number, the size distribution, and the reproductive cycles.”

Soon after the oil spill, Powell and graduate students Katie Gibbs, Warren Jones, and Laura Heflin—along with undergraduate Kate Kohlenberg—went to Cape San Blas to look at the current demographics of the sea urchin population. According to Powell, the combination of new statistics and the wealth of information provided by historical data should facilitate future research if oil reaches the site.

“Going forward, we’ll be able to monitor the effects of the spill in very specific ways,” she says. Another advantage to having the urchins in the lab is that it provides an ideal test bed for new bioremediation techniques, Powell adds. In other words, the effects of certain cleanup efforts can be tested on animals in the lab before being tried with populations in the natural habitat.

Although there had been some hope that the collected urchins could be used to repopulate Gulf waters if any species are destroyed by the spill, it’s not that simple, Powell says. The spiny creatures are only one part of an incredibly complex ecosystem.

“Fish feed on them. Crabs feed on them. They’re an important part of the food chain,” Powell says. “Just putting the urchins back is not going to restore the ecosystem, but we do hope that we’ll be able to create an onshore industry.”

Powell says that it’s inevitable that this oil spill will change the urchin habitat.

“You just hope for the best—that the cleanup will be effective, that the population will recover,” she says.

More Information

UAB Department of Biology

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