URI students to study subtropical ecosystem in Bermuda

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I., March 18, 2016—When most people think of Bermuda, cruise ships and golf come to mind.


University of Rhode Island biology and marine biology students are spending their spring break on the island for another reason—to study its subtropical habitat.


URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography and College of the Environment and Life Sciences are coordinating the weeklong trip, from March 19 to 26.


The 11 students, all majoring in biology and marine biology, will study fish, crabs, seahorses and other marine life in seagrasses and mangroves and explore the island’s coral reefs and many caves. They will also examine the geology of the limestone island and study plankton, microscopic organisms essential to the ocean’s role in regulating the climate, the air people breathe and marine food webs.


The first-ever class is the brainstorm of Tatiana Rynearson, GSO associate professor, and Chris Lane, an environmental sciences professor. The University offers a semester-long course in Bermuda, but this class is a good fit for students seeking a shorter visit.


“It’s a great opportunity for students to get into the field and apply some of the concepts they’ve been learning in the classroom,” says Rynearson. “There’s nothing like learning by doing. We, as professors, get excited about going into the field, so we’re excited to take the students with us to share that journey of discovery.”


The students, from freshmen to seniors, will live and study at the internationally acclaimed Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences. The facility has laboratories as well as boats that will ferry students to different habitats, where they can collect samples and record data in their notebooks.


“The point is for them to learn about the extent of biodiversity on this island in the middle of the ocean,” says Rynearson, “and learn how an ecosystem is shaped: What are the factors that influence what ends up living there?”


The class will also feature guest speakers talking about topics such as deep-sea fish, invasive species, mangrove tree habitats and climate change.


Students will spend much of their time snorkeling and diving in the crystal clear waters around Bermuda. The water is clear because it contains so few nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. As a result, very few plankton can survive there.


That warm, clear water provides a perfect habitat for a diversity of corals and macroalgae. This, in turn, provides homes for many kinds of reef fish.


“Students will notice that Rhode Island’s coastal waters are much cloudier, with poor visibility,” says Rynearson. “That’s caused by a combination of more plankton and sediment.”


Katie Nickles, of Slingerlands, N.Y., decided to sign up for the course because she’s taken classes with Rynearson and Lane before and appreciates their excellent teaching.


“This also seemed like a great opportunity to use my spring break to do something and also get the added benefit of learning about different marine environments,” she says. “It’s a good chance to get to know people and see a different and unique place. I can’t wait.”


Pictured above: A former University of Rhode Island student diving off the coast of Bermuda.

Photo courtesy of URI associate professor Chris Lane.