Key insight

The value of ecology

On warm summer days in Ohio, I loved to go to the creek in my neighborhood and look for crawdads within the stream. I grew up appreciating nature and the endless connections that bind all life together. Most of all, I was always fascinated with the nature of those interactions and how they work. What would happen if the stream changed direction, would the crawdads find a new home? Or what if the creek was blocked, would everything I loved slowly change as the water slows? Until I began to study at the University of South Carolina, I did not recognize that my interests in nature were bound by a single concept; ecology.

During high school, biology and science classes discussed ecology to teach us the basics. In general, ecology is the study of the relationships between living organism and their physical environment. It wasn’t until Ecology and Evolution (BIOL 301) taught by Dr. William Franklin taken in the Spring of 2020 did I realize just how incredible ecology can be. We learned about ecological interactions at species, community, ecosystem, and global scales with a variety of examples and real-life scenarios. At the beginning of the semester, we read the book “There’s a hair in my dirt!” by Gary Larson. I chose this as my Within the Classroom Artifact because in this comedic story, an earthworm family is enjoying dinner when the teenage worm finds a human hair in their dirt dinner and is disgusted. The book delves into a lesson of how everything in the natural world is connected as the father worm lectures his kid.

While the graphics and artwork are enjoyable, there was an important lesson; all organisms are dependent on others, and studying ecology allows us to understand the complex connections between life. As Edward O. Wilson says in the book’s foreword, “Life is tough! There is no free lunch, and what one creature consumes, another must provide. I know of no instance in which a species of plant or animal gives willing support to another without extracting some advantage in return”.  We are a part of nature, and a part of this mutual exploitation among all living things. Furthermore, we cannot study ecology without first understanding the reality of life. The ecological web that ties all life together is one of intricacy, beauty, and unrelenting brutality. This book and our discussions in BIOL 301 opened my eyes to how fascinating the study of ecology truly is. It helped me realize that the questions I had been asking out by the creek in Ohio were about ecology, and the questions I continued to ask at school were to learn more about ecological interactions. From that class onwards, I have studied ecology in research projects, additional classes, and volunteer opportunities.

Figure 1. The cover of “There’s a Hair in my Dirt”, which I read in BIOL 301 in the Spring of 2020. The book discusses ecology as a whole while emphasizing how everything is connected in comedic writing. It opened my eyes to how much I enjoy learning about ecology, and ultimately led to my decision to study ecology in my career.

My first ecological research project was on limnology in the fall of 2021 for an Independent Study credit (BIOL 399) with Dr. Jeffry Dudycha. Limnology is the study of biological, chemical, and physical features of bodies of fresh water. I began by assisting graduate student Jake Swanson on his project on phytoplankton community composition within South Carolina lakes. I then formed an independent project alongside Jake’s pursing my own ecological questions. We collected phytoplankton communities from both Lake Jocassee and Lake Murray, then grew them in the lab exposed to different light colors and phosphorus concentrations. Phytoplankton use photosynthesis and nutrients in the environment to survive, so the light and nutrients they are exposed to can alter their ability to grow. My goal was to understand how the physical conditions (light and nutrient) interact with the phytoplankton individually (through their ability to absorb the light provided to them) and the community (through the competition among different phytoplankton species in the community). I learned that the physical conditions these phytoplankton communities are exposed to can heavily influence competition of phytoplankton in freshwater ecosystems. I also discovered that as the physical conditions of South Carolina’s lakes continue to change with human interaction, there will likely be a major shift in phytoplankton community competition that favors those that are best able to use green or red light waves to photosynthesize and grow.

Figure 2. A picture of my poster at the Ecological Society of America conference in Montreal, Canada. I presented on the limnological work I did through my Independent Study (BIOL 399) with Dr. Jeffry Dudycha.

In August of 2022, I was fortunate to present this project with a poster at the Ecological Society of America conference in Montreal, Canada. When I created the poster and reflected on the lessons learned from the project, I was reminded of “There’s a hair in my dirt!”. Every individual phytoplankton was competing for the light and nutrients available. When one was able to use the resources efficiently and grow rapidly, another died from insufficient resources. The process of forming, conducting, and presenting on this project only solidified my desire to study ecology further. It was my first experience researching ecology outside of a textbook, and I was hooked.

I truly found every ecological concept we discussed in BIOL 301 intriguing. One topic I was extremely interesting was parasitic ecology, which is a relationship between two organisms in which one benefits at the expense of the other. Inspired by concepts within BIOL 301, I researched parasite ecology for my NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Internship. In the summer of 2022, I worked with Dr. Donald Behringer (University of Florida), Dr. Antonio Baeza (Clemson University), and Dr. Mark Ladd (NOAA Fisheries) to study the effects of a worm egg-predator, Carcinonemertes conanobrieni, on the Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus argus. The worm was recently discovered and consumes the developing eggs of P. argus. This may have extreme consequences on future populations of P. argus, as the eggs are consumed before they have a chance to grow into an adult. For 2 months, I was in the Florida Keys gathering data of the number of worms found within the lobster eggs and searching for potential ecological patterns between the parasite and the host. I have continued to analyze the data I collected as my USC Honors Senior thesis. I used basic ecological concepts we learned in BIOL 301 to shape my explorations, such as factors that influence the probability of host infection and mechanisms of parasite transmission. I do not know if I would have searched for an internship focused on parasite ecology without BIOL 301. I am grateful to have learned about the concept in class and to have the opportunity to pursue it further in my own research.

Figure 3. The nemertean worm I studied for my Hollings internship, Carcinonemertes conanobrieni.
Figure 4. A Caribbean spiny lobster on the seafloor.
Figure 5. Me during a research dive to collect gravid Caribbean spiny lobster.

The reality of how everything in nature is connected in ways we still do not fully understand was first introduced to me in BIOL 301. The coursework and material delved into ecological concepts, and “There’s a hair in my dirt!” opened my eyes to the role of mutual exploitation among ecology. From my initial interest in ecology, I pursued an ecology-focused research project studying limnology and phytoplankton communities. This experience contributed to my GLD Pathway of Research as it was my first experience with ecology outside of classes. I found that I truly enjoyed researching ecological questions and wanted to continue to do so for years to come. From learning parasitism in BIOL 301 and finding my desire to study ecology, I conducted research focused on parasite ecology for my NOAA Ernest F. Hollings internship. Not only did this tie in my previous experience with courses and ecological research, but it taught me just how valuable the study of ecology can be. We must understand how the parasite (C. conanobrieni) and the host (Panulirus argus) interact with one another to predict how future populations of lobsters may be affected. This contributed to my Pathway of Research as well because it solidified my decision to pursue a doctorate in Marine Ecology following graduation from USC. In the next stages of my career as a researcher, I will remember the lessons of BIOL 301 from lectures and “There’s a hair in my dirt!” to continue pushing ecological research into new perspectives.

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