Craig Schneider Awarded NSF Grant to Study Algal Diversity of Bermuda

Trinity Alumnus to collaborate on $472,000 Research Project
​HARTFORD, CT, September 13, 2011 – The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a three-year, $89,499 grant to Craig W. Schneider, Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology, to examine the macroalgal diversity of Bermuda, an island archipelago that is ideally suited for marine biodiversity studies because it’s at the intersection of tropical and warm temperate biogeographic zones.

Schneider, who has long had an interest in the marine flora of Bermuda and the southeastern United States, will be working with Christopher E. Lane, assistant professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island. Lane, who graduated from Trinity in 1999, was a former student of Schneider’s. Lane subsequently received his Ph.D. from the University of New Brunswick in Canada. The two have co-authored several papers on the Bermuda flora.

The NSF grant is effective September 1 of this year and expires on August 31, 2014. Schneider is the principal investigator on the project entitled, “RUI: Collaborative Research: The Bermuda Seaweed Project.” The $89,499 is part of a larger NSF award of roughly $472,000 that is financing the collaborative effort.

The project has three objectives: To perform an exhaustive survey and collection of the marine macroalgal diversity of Bermuda and targeted Caribbean species; to produce molecular barcode data for the marine species; and to combine molecular data to produce phylogenetic classification of all marine Bermuda macroalgae.

A Tolland resident, Schneider has been exploring this subject since the early 1990s. Prior to that, no researcher had taken an in-depth look at Bermuda’s macroalgal diversity since the 1950s. Indeed, given Schneider’s earlier work focusing on the southeastern coast of the U.S., “Bermuda was the next logical place to study,” he said, “due to its northern latitude off the Carolinas, but also its subtropical marine environment due to warming waters of the Gulf Stream.”  

Schneider, who has been at Trinity since 1975, said he expects to begin his work in earnest in January and that he would probably be taking a Trinity student to Bermuda in the summer of 2012.

According to the project summary, Bermuda’s small size supports about 450 species of red, brown and green seaweeds. The small number of flora will allow for the archipelago’s algal diversity to be completely assessed over the period of the grant, a project that would be nearly impossible for the larger and more diversely populated islands in the Caribbean.

In addition to the diverse mix of algae that inhabit Bermuda, the islands are sentinels to changing water temperatures. Many tropical species that might otherwise thrive in Bermuda’s waters cannot survive or reproduce at the water temperatures reached during the winter.  Warmer annual temperatures might also cause the disappearance of cold-water winter species.

Thus, providing an exhaustive baseline dataset for comparison will provide a means for detecting the arrival of cold-water intolerant tropical species or the loss of cold-water tolerant species in Bermuda’s flora.

The researchers, using molecular techniques, will compare Bermuda species with specimens collected in more traditional Caribbean and North American habitats. The outcome, according to the project description, “will be the most complete floristic survey for any island grouping at present and a baseline with which to monitor potential future tropical additions and cold-water species losses to flora.”

In other words, the baseline data produced by this study will be invaluable to researchers who study the marine biodiversity of Bermuda and the Caribbean in light of global warming. 

As part of the NSF grant, one graduate student and as many as eight undergraduates will be trained in molecular and alpha taxonomic techniques that are necessary to identify and classify a wide range of macroalgal species. 

Outreach activities in Bermuda will include working with the Bermuda Aquarium to produce signage for common native algal species that exist in its display tanks, and provide training for the aquarium’s education staff to incorporate into their school programs. 

The organized activities will help educate about 7,000 Bermudian schoolchildren each year about seaweeds and their importance in the marine environment, a topic essential to the long-term environmental health of the islands.