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potential projects

REU students will receive hands-on scientific training from one of several Auburn faculty mentors, who are experts in many subdisciplines of warm-water aquatic ecology.  Moreover, the students will have opportunities to conduct their research in diverse ecosystems located throughout Alabama.  Students will be encouraged to develop an independent research project with their mentor following acceptance into the program.  Examples of potential REU projects can be found below.

Reproduction and nesting in freshwater turtles 

Mentors: Dan Warner, Jamie Oaks, and Matt Wolak

Research in the Warner, Oaks, and Wolak labs focuses on aspects of reptile ecology and evolution. The REU student will be involved in a diversity of research projects that include freshwater turtle ecology and phylogenetics. The specific project that the REU student will undertake will examine aspects of maternal nesting behaviors and their consequences on egg hatching success. This project will focus on freshwater turtle populations. The data collected will be important in understanding how maternal behaviors affect offspring survival across a range of environmental conditions. The student will gain valuable experience designing field and laboratory experiments, as well as statistical analysis of data. 

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Consequences of multiple stressors on individual- and population-level traits

Mentor: Tonia Schwartz 

Using the freshwater zooplankton model system, Daphnia, the REU student will conduct lab and field experiments testing the effects of multiple stressors, such as food quality and quantity, metals, pathogens, and elevated temperature, on important physiological and ecological traits and trade-offs at the individual and population levels, respectively.  Experiments may include short-term stress responses or population evolution experiments.  The REU student will have opportunities to learn analytical and genetic methods in addition to gaining a better understanding about experimental design and statistical analyses.

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Exploring the nexus between urbanization and health of salt marsh resident fishes in coastal Alabama.

Mentor: Chris Anderson

Salt marshes are critical habitats for Gulf of Mexico (GOM) fishes. As human populations along the northern GOM coast continue to increase, it is important to know how related land-use changes will affect critical fish habitats. The REU student will help in sampling and analyzing water quality and resident fish communities from multiply tidal creeks draining to salt marshes along coastal Alabama. The student will also develop statistical models to evaluate the strength of the relationship between salinity and dissolved oxygen on marsh fish diversity and biomass. These findings will be related to the land use/cover of the catchments draining to these creeks to elucidate how urbanization in coastal watersheds impacts the health of the coastal habitats.

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Ancient Eutrophication: Using the sediment record to reconstruct eutrophication and environmental change through time

Mentor: Matt Waters

This project will utilize paleolimnological tools to analyze sediment cores from natural lake and reservoir systems.  The student will learn the techniques, interpretation, and application of sediment analysis such as organic matter, nutrients, heavy metals, photosynthetic pigments, and cyanotoxins.  Data will be used to reconstruct how lakes and reservoirs have changed through time with particular focus on the environmental drivers that cause ecosystem change (e.g., land use, climate, hydrological modifications, invasive species).  The project will combine field and laboratory techniques.

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Teasing apart the factors related to taste and odor compounds in drinking water and aquaculture reservoirs.

Mentor: Alan Wilson

Taste and odor compounds, such as geosmin and MIB, negatively affect drinking water and aquaculture-raised fish by causing muddy flavors and odors.  Despite significant research dedicated to removing these compounds from water, relatively little research has examined the abiotic (e.g., climate) and biotic (e.g., food-web interactions) factors responsible for taste-and-odor episodes.  The REU student will work Alan and his graduate students to design and conduct complex lab- and field-based experiments that help explain the complicated interactions driving off-flavor production in diverse aquatic systems. 

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Energetics of riverine fishes: what factors affect energetic stress in fish?

Mentor: Dennis DeVries

Fishes are subjected to a wide array of factors that can affect them and perhaps even stress them, including both natural and human-caused factors.  One way to measure the effects of such factors is to look at the energetics of the fishes, that is, how they use the energy that they take in.  An organism’s metabolic rate is an important basic energetic output, and it is something that can be measured relatively easily for fishes in a controlled laboratory setting.  Here we will use such an approach to quantify metabolic rates of several fish species, and examine the effects of several stressors/enhancers, such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, school size, and salinity, on their metabolic rate.  Although we have a variety of questions we are interested in asking, two questions that are of particular interest are (1) does metabolic rate differ for fish when they are alone versus when they are part of a group and does that response differ across species, and (2) does salinity affect metabolic rate of freshwater fish that are found in inland (freshwater) versus coastal (estuarine) sites?  This work will involve field work to collect the fish, lab work to conduct the metabolic runs, and data analysis with the outputs of the work.  

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Molecular ecology of imperiled freshwater mollusks. 

Mentor: Nathan Whelan

River impoundments and pollution have caused population fragmentation and decline of many freshwater mussel and snail species in North America. However, a lack of past research hinders conservation efforts. Genetic data, in particular, are needed to understand how remaining populations are connected, to examine genetic consequences of species decline, and to evaluate the success of conservation efforts. The REU student will use genomic techniques to examine how genetic diversity of mollusks varies across riverine landscapes, focusing on species of conservation concern. Potential study species include both mussels and snails. The student will have the opportunity to participate in fieldwork, and they will be trained in genomic data generation and analysis.

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Physiological mechanisms regulating sperm activation and motility in aquatic species. 

Mentor: Ian Butts

Fish sperm are immotile in the testis or sperm duct prior to spawning. Activation of sperm occurs after release from the genital papilla into an aquatic environment. Duration of sperm motility varies widely among species, though generally is briefer in freshwater than marine species (~1-2 min). During this narrow “window of opportunity”, the sperm cells must locate an egg and penetrate the micropyle (small opening in egg) to achieve fertilization. Thus, reproductive potential of fish stocks, either in their natural or cultivated habitat, is critically dependent on the performance of sperm in the aquatic environment. Here, the REU student will test hypotheses which govern “optimal” swimming conditions for sperm from aquatic species (fish or freshwater bivalves) in the Southern US. Data will be generated using a Computer Assisted Sperm Analyses system (measures velocity and motion parameters) and flow cytometer (measures physiological indices). Results will have implications for aquaculture and conservation biology.

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Quantifying the impacts of forest management on aquatic insect and autotrophic fungi communities 

Mentor: Lori Eckhardt

Forest management could potentially affect organisms in all forest habitats. However, aquatic communities may be especially sensitive. These ecosystems are large and complex with several interactive components and makes it difficult to conduct a good scientific project. Therefore, our research experiments will miniaturize these ecosystems by using artificial tree hole aquatic systems. Experiments will focus on abundance and species richness and how they are affected by environmental variables such as temperature, rainfall, tree density and size, tree species, etc. The REU student will fain valuable experience designing field and laboratory experiments, data collection, as well as statistical analysis of data.

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Biomass conversion as a tool for treating wastewater

Mentor: Brendan Higgins

With the world population projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, there is an urgent need to increase global protein production. As highly productive aquatic organisms, algae (phytoplankton) and zooplankton are uniquely positioned to help fill this need for protein. The concept our lab is exploring is growing algae on wastewater and then feeding these algae to the zooplankton Daphnia. Daphnia are an existing feed source for fish production and can yield high trophic transfer efficiency. As Biosystems Engineers, we week to capitalize on these natural ecological relationships to design systems that can sustainably feed the world. This REU project will aim to understand variables such as type of algae feed, oxygen levels, and reactor conditions that can facilitate rapid growth of Daphnia in a controlled environment. The student will be involved with growth of Daphnia in bioreactors and measurement of Daphnia growth, feed conversion efficiency, and transfer of key nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) from algae to Daphnia.

mentor spotlight

Dr. Chris Anderson