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Available Projects (Winter 2024)

The following projects are currently available in the Seascape Ecology lab, and open to current or new MS Marine Science & MS Marine Biology students at Nova Southeastern University. Data for the following projects are already available, and you will work with Zan Milligan and other lab members to learn the necessary tools and techniques as you go. The list is updated regularly as new opportunities and datasets become available, so check back often if you're interested:


The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (DWHOS; April 2010) was a globally unprecedented event, which released an estimated 5 million barrels of crude oil into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico from a depth of 1500 m. With extremely limited pre-spill data for the deep-pelagic realm, DWHOS has prompted a decade of extensive research efforts to better understand the dynamic structure, function, and potential vulnerability of the deep-living fauna to disturbance. Nonetheless, we still have many unanswered questions, and there is a need to develop better predictive tools that are applicable to the future management of pelagic ecosystems. Some potential project topics are provided below:

3D Species Distribution Maps

Understanding where different species live, and the abiotic, biotic and spatial processes that drive observed changes in pelagic fishes is key to improving our predictions of future ecosystem states. Using the DEEPEND abundance, biomass and length biotic data and metadata, there are extensive opportunities to develop models describing the horizontal and vertical distribution patterns and occurrences of key taxa in relation to major oceanographic features and abiotic variables, changes through time, and life history patterns. Similarly, understanding and comparing the strengths and weaknesses of different analytical tools (e.g., GAMMs vs. Random Forests vs. MAXENT) will provide valuable insight when planning future offshore surveys both within the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. 

Quantifying Carbon Flux through the Water Column

Carbon sequestration is one of the major ecosystem services provided by migratory mesopelagic taxa, with an estimated global annual value of $300 - 900 billion USD. Quantifying the spatial and temporal patterns of carbon flux within the Gulf of Mexico in relation to major abiotic variables and known ontogenetic changes in vertical distribution patterns. Better understanding of the relative importance of different taxa in different oceanic regions will allow for better management decisions to be made when valuing marine resources for exploitation or conservation. 

Biodiversity patterns of Deep-Pelagic Fishes

The deep Gulf of Mexico contains a highly diverse fauna, however relatively little is understood about the drivers and stability of that biodiversity through time. There is scope to use our existing datasets to further examine changing patterns of biodiversity in the fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, and/or for capstone projects examining the theoretical bases for the creation of high levels of biodiversity within the highly dynamic, and highly connected deep-pelagic realm, and what the potential importance of rare species may be. 

Functional Ecology of Deep-Pelagic Fishes

These projects focus on developing and identifying proxy measures that may be useful in predicting the functional roles of deep-pelagic fishes in the deep Gulf of Mexico, drawing on ecological lessons from fields such as metabolic theory, size spectrum analyses, and morphometry and shape analyses. 

Size Spectrum Analyses (Population & Assemblage level)

Marine pelagic assemblages are strongly structured by body size which in turn is strongly linked to the metabolic theory of ecology. Given the relative lack of information regarding functional and life-history traits in most deep-living fauna, proxy measures such as body size offer a potentially valuable, easy-to-obtain metric for assessing changes in assemblage or population structures over time or in response to changing conditions or human impacts. However, while these tools have been successfully used to examine the effects of coastal fisheries impacts, it is not clear how they may be applied to deep-pelagic systems more generally. Within this topic area, projects are available to address these data gaps, including:


  1. What data are needed to accurately determine the size structure of the fish fauna? Do sampling and storage (e.g., fixation) methods affect comparisons? Can we correct for sampling effects? 

  2. How does the size-structure of the fish assemblage / population vary over time / with depth / in relation to major environmental features in the Gulf of Mexico? Do the observed patterns match theoretical predictions?

  3. Do different gear types (i.e., high-speed rope trawl vs. MOCNESS) produce consistent results?



Computer-Aided Image Classification of Micronekton 

Through the DEEPEND project, we have amassed the largest collection of deep-living pelagic fishes in the world, but identifying the fauna from this highly speciose region requires extensive taxonomic expertise. In this project, we aim to build a photographic library of specimens, using Prof. Sutton's extensive specimen collection which is housed at Nova Southeastern University. Through this project, we will explore the potential for computer-assisted identification tools to aid in the process specimen identification for future resource management efforts, and to identify the benefits and limitations of such an approach.

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