For Immediate Release

Contact: Deborah Gilleran
732.987.2266
dgilleran@georgian.edu

Georgian Court Scientists Receive Research Grant

NOAA Sea Grant Will Fund Continued Research on Plants Invading Coastal Dunes

Lakewood, N.J., July 15, 2008—Georgian Court University has been awarded a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Grant program to conduct scientific research on and around the dunes of New Jersey, to study the effects of a non-native dune plant, Carex kobomugi, commonly known as Asiatic Sand Sedge. With nationwide scientific impact, the research project will ultimately help to ensure healthy dune and maritime forest ecosystems around the United States.

“We were awarded $146,058 by Sea Grant to continue our research on invasive species on the dunes and to start some new research looking at how the grass is affecting the animals that live on dunes, as well as to look for any predictable patterns in the way in which the sedge is spreading,” says Louise Wootton, Ph.D., a GCU professor of biology and the lead researcher on the project.

Dr. Wootton explains that the initial research project began six years ago with an effort to map the invasive weed, which is native to Japan, China, Korea, and Russia, and to determine if it was having any effects on native plant communities. Asiatic Sand Sedge is thought to have been introduced to the United States when ships from Asia offloaded solid ballast prior to entering New York Harbor to collect a cargo to be taken back to Asia. The species can now be found up and down the U.S. coastline from Massachusetts to South Carolina, as well as in coastal dunes in Oregon and Washington states.

Though it was purposely planted in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to stabilize sand dunes, scientists now realize that C. kobomugi’s prolific growth has very negative effects on our coastal ecosystem.

During the few years of the project, Dr. Wootton and her team of scientists and students walked much of the New Jersey coastline using satellite technology to map the exact whereabouts of the sedge. Now, they are out on the beaches again, tracking where the plant has spread, as well as studying its effects on the native animal species.

“As scientists, we know that it is eliminating native plant species,” Dr. Wootton says of C. kobomugi. “Our earlier research showed that it has a negative effect on both the abundance and diversity of native dune plants, but what does it mean for the animals in the ecosystem? Are they just happy that there is a plant there and don’t care? Or does the invasive species have a negative effect on the rest of the habitat? It’s not something scientists know a lot about, not just for this species, but for invasive plants in general,” she explains.

Therefore, she continues, one of the major goals of this project is to ascertain what the effects of the sedge’s invasion are on the ecosystem, beyond the plant kingdom.

“We want to compare every creepy-crawly in dunes where native species are growing with those of the dunes where the invasive sedge has taken over,” she says. “We go out to the beaches with insect nets and traps, and then we spend hours and hours in the lab identifying and counting what we caught. This is really challenging since there is an enormous number of arthropod species present on dunes, and many of them are smaller than a period on a page.”

So far they’ve come up with two creatures for which the entomologist has no classification—arthropods that are potentially new, previously undiscovered species.

“The other thing we are doing is remapping everything that we originally mapped,” Dr. Wootton explains. “We know where the sedge was, but we don’t know how fast it is growing. We need to get an accurate sense of how fast it’s expanding to be able to anticipate where it may spread in the future.” This is important to protect endangered species or habitats that might be threatened by the species’ growth.

The third part of the project is a long-term monitoring program to see how the invasion of this plant is affecting the dune height and dune growth, an important topic not just to scientists, but to coastal area homeowners whose property is protected by dunes during storms.

“People have said that dunes that are invaded by the species tend to be lower than dunes with native species,” says Dr. Wootton, but adds that no scientific data currently exists to back up that claim.

She says that “the American beach grass, the most common native plant on the dune, is tall—at least up to your knees. The Asiatic Sand Sedge is a much lower plant, with its leaves usually reaching only up to your ankles.” So it is thought that a low plant would collect less sand, making for shorter dunes. She hopes to end speculation on the matter by providing scientific evidence as to the height and growth patterns of sand dunes inhabited by the non-native sedge relative to those where the native species still prevail.

The final stage of the research program will come about next July when Georgian Court will convene a conference focusing on invasive plant species affecting dune and coastal maritime habitats of the Atlantic coast. The conference will target park managers, scientists, and personnel from agencies like the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as nursery plant growers to educate them on the importance of planting native species at homes along the coast.

“These are very precious habitats,” concludes Dr. Wootton. “There is nowhere else like this on the whole continent. They are a tiny percentage of the whole ecosystem of the United States, and they have been built on a lot, so the few pieces we have left we want to maintain.”

For more information about the research program, contact Dr. Louise Wootton at 732.987.2349.

ABOUT SEA GRANT
Administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sea Grant is a nationwide network of 30 university-based programs that work with coastal communities. The National Sea Grant College Program engages this network of the nation’s top universities in conducting scientific research, education, training, and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources. Environmental stewardship, long-term economic development and responsible use of America’s coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes resources are at the heart of Sea Grant’s mission. For more information, visit the Sea Grant Web site at www.seagrant.noaa.gov.

Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is a comprehensive university with a strong liberal arts core and a special concern for women. A forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, Georgian Court serves over 3,000 students of all faiths and backgrounds in a residential Women's College and a coeducational University College with undergraduate and graduate programs. Georgian Court's main campus is located at 900 Lakewood Avenue, Lakewood, N.J., on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, now named a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court also offers classes at its site at 90 Woodbridge Center Drive in Woodbridge, at Coastal Communiversity in Wall, and at Cumberland County College in Vineland.

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