The BMA of Today

Christine Hart, Clemson University

2017-06-22 10.29.36

In previous blog posts I described the sand-dwelling microalgae, also known as benthic microalgae (BMA), which are essential to estuary ecosystems. Not only do they produce the air we breathe and food we eat, they also inform us about the subtle changes that are occurring in our environment. Changes that otherwise may go unnoticed.

How do BMA show these environmental changes? By forming the foundation of estuarine energy, they provide a snapshot of how the estuary is functioning as a whole. If changes occur in BMA patterns, this may indicate changes in the overall ecosystem. BMA are also easily characterized and compared using modern molecular approaches. These qualities make BMA living indicators, or bioindicators, that are important in monitoring future ecosystem health.

BMA become visible in the upper layers of sediment at low tide. Later, they decrease in density—or biomass—as the tide rises. Our project studied the mechanism for the increase of biomass during low tide. Previous studies suggested that the mechanism for biomass increase is vertical migration of BMA from lower layers to upper layers of sediment. We also tested whether BMA growth due to high light exposure contributes to the biomass increase.

Our results indicated that both vertical migration and growth due to sunlight exposure were important to the increase in biomass. This is the first contribution to literature that recognizes a multifaceted approach to BMA biomass changes.

Additionally, we studied in how the biomass increase was connected to patterns in the type of BMA in Charleston Harbor. Previous studies suggested that increasing biomass was connected to changes in the abundance of BMA species; therefore, we expected to see the amount of certain BMA species change based on their exposure to migration and sunlight.

We were surprised by our findings. In this study, we found that BMA did not vary over short time periods (by tidal stage or by exposure to migration and sunlight). Instead, we found that BMA varied spatially and over a period of 6 years. In fact, only one of the dominant species of BMA remained the same from 2011 to 2017 (Figure 1).  The long-term change in community coincides with geological changes in the sampling site (Figure 2).


Figure 1. The relative abundance of each dominant BMA species from 2011 to 2017 is shown immediately after sediment exposure (T0) and 3 hours later (TF). Only one species—Halamphora coffeaeformis—remains dominant in 2017. This is evidence of a dramatic change in the dominant type of BMA in Grice Cove.

These are positive results for the use of BMA as bioindicators. If types of BMA are invariable over short periods of time, measurements of BMA will be more precise. Bioindicators must be capable of showing changes that are occurring on a larger environmental scale; therefore, it would be a good sign if the change in BMA community reflects the changing geological environment (Figure 2). Still, more studies on the temporal and spatial patterns of BMA communities should be conducted before BMA can be used as bioindicators.

Changes in Grice Cove

Figure 2. Aerial view of Grice Cove sampling site over time. The approximate location of the sampling site is shown by the white line. Sampling sandbar has changed over time, possibly contributing to community changes. Source: “Grice Cove” 32 degrees 44’58”N 79 degrees 53’45”W. Google Earth. January 2012 to March 2014. June 20, 2017.

This study contributed new information to the studies of BMA biomass during low tide, and showed that the BMA of today in Grice Cove are significantly different than in previous years.


Thank you to my mentor, Dr. Craig Plante, and my co-advisor, Kristina Hill-Spanik, for their support and guidance. This project is funded through the National Science Foundation and supported by College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Laboratory.


Literature Cited:

Holt, E. A. & Miller, S. W. (2010) Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):8.

Lobo, E. A., Heinrich, C. G., Schuch, M., Wetzel, C. E., & Ector, L. (n.d.). Diatoms as Bioindicators in Rivers. In River Algae (pp. 245-271). Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-31984-.

MacIntyre, H.L., R.J. Geider, and D.C. Miller. 1996. Microphytobenthos: the ecological role of
 the “Secret Garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. I. Distribution, abundance and primary production. Estuaries 19:186-201.

Rivera-Garcia, L.G., Hill-Spanik, K.M., Berthrong, S.T., and Plante, C. J. Tidal Stage Changes in Structure and Diversity of Intertidal Benthic Diatom Assemblages: A Case Study from Two Contrasting Charleston Harbor Flats. Estuaries and Coasts. In review.


Catch of the Day(s)

Melanie Herrera, University of Maryland College Park

South Carolina is known for its iconic southern cuisine, including a staple of fresh seafood which fuels the buckets of shrimp & grits and “catch of the day”. In order to support this huge industry (and fill the bellies of every South Carolinian), I am conducting an experiment to figure out where this seafood is holing up prior to its demise. Dr. Harold, his graduate student, Mary Ann McBrayer, and I are out on Grice Beach collecting fishes, crabs, shrimps, and much more in order to figure what exactly is there… And what they are using to survive.

Using a seine net, we encircle marine animals in dense and sparse patches of an invasive sea grass, Gracilaria, for collection. We hypothesize that Gracilaria is helping the local economy (a surprising contribution from an invasive species) by creating refuge for young animals. On the beach, we submerge separate samples of animals (from dense versus sparse areas of Gracilaria) into a euthanizing solution to bring them up to the lab for preservation and analysis (Figure 1).

Dense v Sparse.png

Figure 1: An example of animals caught in separate habitats at Grice Cove. The left exhibits animals caught in a dense area of Gracilaria and the right exhibits animals caught from a sparse area of Gracialaria. Credit: Melanie Herrera

In the lab, separate samples (dense versus sparse) undergo a few transfers into different fixatives (10% seawater formalin, 25% isopropyl, and 50% isopropyl consecutively) to keep the fish from decaying. After this preserving process, fish and other animals are separated and categorized by family, genus, and species. This categorization enables us to identify and analyze what types of animals and how many of each are using different habitat. Our analysis will give us insight on what type of habitat, either patches dominated by Gracilaria or areas with more open water, benefits fish. Specifically, we will be able to identify if Gracilaria is more advantageous to young fish or if their survivorship is independent from their habitat.

So far, we have collected lots of pipefish, narrow skinny fish that resemble a hair strand-size snake, Atlantic Silversides, a fish that looks exactly like it sounds, and more shrimp than anyone needs (Figure 2). Although some of these animals do not directly contribute to the seafood industry, its presence in the Charleston Harbor can tell us a lot of things. For example, we have seen some fishes that usually stay in warmer waters in the Southern U.S. Their expanding habitat can lead us to some more hypotheses on climate change and warm weather moving northward. In addition, we can find out if Gracilaria has a stake in rearing economically important fish in the future.

Pipefish, Silversides, Grass Shrimp.png

Figure 2: (From left to right) Pipefish, Atlantic Silversides, and Grass Shrimp caught for analysis.Credit: Melanie Herrera

Thank you so much to my mentor Dr. Tony Harold and his lab for his advice and guidance. Thank you to Mary Ann McBrayer for helping me facilitate this project. This research is funded through the National Science Foundation and College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Lab.