University of New Orleans biologist T. Erin Cox’s research expertise is in coastal benthic organisms, which are the animals and plants that live on the sea floor. Her laboratory group is interested in how these organisms respond to climate change and other environmental factors that can affect life on land.
“I study organisms that live on the sea floor, things like barnacles or crabs or sea grasses or algae,” Cox said. “We look at how they interact with each other and the environment, and how their interactions can cascade to affect things that humans get out of the ecosystems.”
Cox recently collaborated with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to explore and collect samples from artificial reefs off the coast of Alabama.
That research focuses on how human-made structures shape the ecology of the northern Gulf of Mexico, and the effects of global environmental change on seagrass bed and artificial reef ecosystems.
Seagrass beds are an important natural resource in the northern Gulf of Mexico, according to Cox. They indirectly support commercial fishing landings, protect shorelines from storm surge and land loss, and capture carbon to buffer climate change, she said.
“Things like seagrass beds help to stabilize sediment and slow wave action, and that prevents land erosion and we have a lot of land loss,” Cox said. “Then things on the reef are food for a lot of fishes that we like to harvest. So, our research is really focusing on managing those ecosystems and protecting those ecosystems and how we can do that.”
Artificial reefs are human-made structures often placed in the ocean to increase fishing opportunities and promote sea life. In the northern Gulf of Mexico, the seafloor is mostly composed of soft sediments. Therefore, artificial surfaces create habitat for invertebrates, such as barnacles, crabs, anemones and algae, that otherwise may not be there, Cox said.
“Our research questions focus on describing primary production on and surrounding reefs and the link to fish production,” Cox said. “Invertebrates are important for trophic transfer of this energy to fishes. Thus, we are also keenly interested in their physiology-ecology under ocean warming and acidification.
“Because reefs could be stepping-stones for species range expansions into warming waters, we also seek to describe the role of reefs in the maintenance and spread of nuisance and vulnerable species.”