Tracking a Predator
Dickinson’s SFS partnership presents extraordinary student-research opportunities
by Christine Baksi
April 16, 2012
Chris Mealey ’13, who has studied the lionfish migration with a team of researchers in the Turks and Caicos Islands, says regular fishing of the edible species is a way to control the population. “They are actually really tasty, especially on pizza,” he says.
Swimming in the tranquil, blue Caribbean Sea and warm, coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean is a beautiful but venomous predator that is threatening the health of coral reefs and native fishes. A team of researchers is tracking this invasive predator, the lionfish, and its population surge offshore the South Caicos, Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI).
Junior biology major Christopher Mealey ’13 served on the research team and spent much of the fall 2011 semester on diving and snorkeling expeditions of patch reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove sites in depths of up to 60 feet, studying the correlation between the lionfish species size and the depth of its migration into new habitats.
“My main goal was to see if young lionfish live in different locations than adults,” says Mealey. “My results showed that lionfish in the area appeared to prefer seagrass and mangroves as young, then move to shallow coral reefs as they grow bigger and move into deeper water as they reach maturity.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lionfish are relatively new inhabitants of Atlantic and Caribbean water that were first reported in the 1990s and are flourishing along the East Coast from Florida to North Carolina. NOAA calls the species’ expansion “extremely rapid and even exponential in scope.”
Lionfish monitoring is part of ongoing research through the School for Field Studies (SFS) Center for Marine Resource Studies in the TCI. Dickinson enjoys a partner program with SFS in five locations, including TCI, Australia, Costa Rica, Denmark and Kenya.
Mealey’s work earned him the SFS 2012 Distinguished Student Researcher Award, presented to exceptional students who make important contributions in environmental research. Mealey was one of only six students to receive the annual award.
“I was honored when I found out I was nominated and later received the award,” says Mealey. “I put a lot of effort into the research.”
Students are nominated by SFS faculty based on their demonstrated sophistication in research design, field work and reporting; their leadership skills and teamwork; and their contribution to the Center’s five-year research plan.
“Chris’s analysis of the progression of lionfish invasion will be useful when designing the focus of future research projects and is important to present to local stakeholders, including processing-plant owners, fishers and community members who rely on the reefs and fisheries of Turks and Caicos Islands for their livelihood,” says Mealey’s advisor, Allison Candelmo, a lecturer in national resource management at The SFS Center for Marine Resource Studies in the TCI.
Down Under the Sea
Mealey is currently finishing his junior year abroad through Dickinson’s program at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he is working alongside Associate Professor of Biology Tom Arnold. Mealey and Arnold recently co-authored a paper on the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, which will soon be published in PLoS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed journal that features original research in science and medicine.
“I never imagined being a co-author on a published manuscript as an undergraduate," says Mealey. “Professor Arnold has provided me more opportunities with this manuscript than I could have hoped for, so a tremendous amount of thanks goes to him and his work.”
“Chris has a strong interest in marine science and biology,” says Arnold. “It's hard to believe but by the time he finishes his third year at Dickinson, he will have four semesters of research and two semesters abroad under his belt.”