August 18, 2011

Summer undergraduate researcher, Michelle Slosberg, develops marine invasive species predictive method

MIT Sea Grant undergraduate researcher, Michelle Slosberg, has developed a geographically referenced risk assessment method to predict sources of marine invasive species in the coastal waters of the northeastern United States and their potential to spread throughout the region. Slosberg identified countries where eight species of invaders are present and evaluated the likelihood of their arriving in New England. The method integrates environmental factors, life history information, and shipping records to predict the spread of introduced species, and can be used to alert managers of coastal areas to potential invasive species.

Introduced marine species pose a major and expanding threat to global coastal ecosystems. Once introduced, these marine species are extremely difficult, often impossible, to eradicate. Slosberg’s research is part of an ongoing commitment at MIT Sea Grant to raise public awareness and provide approaches to prevent and mitigate the spread of marine invaders. “Although it is nearly impossible to predict which species are likely to invade,” notes Dr. Judith Pederson, advisory leader and regional project coordinator at MIT Sea Grant, “we seek to identify high risk sources and share this information with decision makers and residents of coastal areas.”

The method
Slosberg downloaded publicly available ship arrival and ballast water data from the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse for the last seven years (January 2004 to March 2011). The data were then sorted and summarized based on the origin and destination/discharge port of the ships and their ballast water. This information was further summarized by ecoregion, which is a method of dividing the world's coasts into ecologically delineated regions. For each ecoregion she calculated a risk value, based on the number of ships from the ecoregion and the amount of ballast water sourced there. All of the ecoregion data was input into ArcGIS, a program for visualizing geographic data, to understand how the risk was distributed geographically.

For each species in the study, a review of the literature was conducted to determine its current geographic range. In the ecoregions where the species is already present, the geographic risk values were added to determine a new value, species risk. The species risk values were compared to determine which species were most likely to spread in the northeast United States.

Preliminary findings
Eight species were studied in depth to predict the likelihood of their introduction to the region. Of these species, Clavelina lepadiformis, the light bulb tunicate, and Heterosiphonia japonica, a Pacific alga, were found most likely to spread throughout the northeastern United States as a result of shipping. The riskiest sources of ships were the Carolinian region, which is located along the coast of the southeastern United States and the North Sea of Europe.

These and additional findings will appear in Slosberg’s end of summer final report and be distributed to marine invasive species researchers throughout the US northeast region. This project was supported by the Paul E. Gray (1954) Endowed Fund for UROP for Summer 2011 and supervised by Judith Pederson at the MIT Sea Grant College Program.

About Michelle Slosberg
Michelle Slosberg is at MIT Sea Grant under the auspices of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, and is supervised by MIT Sea Grant’s Dr. Pederson. When asked about the impact of this summer internship on her studies and career plans, Slosberg replied, “As a student at MIT, it’s easy to lose context of the bigger picture, but my research at MIT Sea Grant has helped me see the relationship between my interest in studying invasive species and the analytical skills I’ve learned studying environmental science.”

Michelle will be receiving a B.S. in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences with a focus in Environmental Science from MIT in January 2012. In addition to her work at MIT Sea Grant, Michelle is conducting undergraduate thesis research on long-term erosion rates on the island of Kaua’i. After receiving her B.S. Michelle hopes to pursue a career in land conservation and stewardship.

About MIT’s UROP program
The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) cultivates and supports research partnerships between MIT undergraduates and faculty. One of the earliest programs of its kind in the United States, MIT’s UROP invites undergraduates to participate in research as the junior colleagues of Institute faculty. The late Margaret L. A. MacVicar, Professor of Physical Science and Dean for Undergraduate Education, created MIT’s UROP In 1969, inspired by Edwin H. Land. Land, the inventor of instant photography, believed in the power of learning by doing.

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This map indicates relative risk from ecoregions outside the northeastern United States, evenly weighting ballast water volume sourced from a region and number of ships from that region. Red represents the highest risk and yellow the lowest risk. Ecoregions in white did not source any ships with a destination in the northeast United States [Sources: Basemap: NOAA 2011; Ecoregions: Spalding 2007].

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