HOUSTON _ A giant vacuum powered by a lawnmower engine may not seem like a tool for scientific study, but salt marsh experts from the University of Houston are using the contraption to study the effects of the oil spill on insects and spiders along the Gulf Coast.
Steven Pennings, a professor in UH's Department of Biology and Biochemistry, recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to gather arthropods along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts at the same locations where his laboratory group collected similar samples in August 2009 for the thesis research of graduate student Brittany DeLoach.
"The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an unexpected event that represents a major disturbance to the coastal system," said Pennings, who has studied coastal wetlands for 20 years. "We don't fully understand how oil affects coastal wetland communities. In particular, we know little about how oil affects the arthropod food web and about the long-term recovery of damaged areas."
"The goal of this project is to determine how the oil spill has affected the insect and spider food web in the salt marshes so we can understand how the food web is structured," Pennings said. "Because we have 22 sample sites spread out over the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, some will get a lot of oil, some a little, and some none, so we'll have a gradient in oil exposure. The strength of this research is that we have the 'before' data from last year so we can see how things have changed in response to the oil spill."
A food web is a group of species linked to each other because they consume each other. For example, one species of insect may eat two species of plants. Another species of insect may eat only one of the plants. Two species of spiders may both eat both species of insects. And a lizard may eat both species of spiders and one of the insects.
"Draw a picture of those links, and you have something that looks like a small web _ that's a food web,"
|Contact: Laura Tolley|
University of Houston