When pondering factors affecting the changing climate, you usually don’t think about predators like sharks. But sharks and animals lower on the marine food chain can have huge effects on the amount of carbon stored in marine ecosystems. Utah State University’s Trisha Atwood, assistant professor in watershed sciences and the Ecology Center, says animals deserve credit for their role in maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems … and their impact on the big picture of climate change.
Atwood doesn’t think like other scientists – especially about sharks. Traditionally marine animals have been considered inconsequential to the accumulation and retention of carbon in marine systems and their impacts on carbon processes haven’t been well represented in the models used to predict climate change. But Atwood and collaborators are finding mounting evidence that by not factoring in the effects of animals on wetland ecosystems, one may be undermining the accuracy of these models.
For her out-of-the-box thinking, Atwood recently received the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program Early-Career Research Fellowship. The fellowship program supports development in emerging scientific leaders who work at the intersections of environmental health, community health and resilience and offshore energy system safety in U.S. coastal regions. With direct financial and mentoring support, the program allows researchers, like Atwood, to take chances early in their careers. This kind of backing allows emerging experts to pursue nontraditional ideas, develop collaborations and build a professional network. The fellowship is awarded to scientists who show strong scientific background, superior scholarship, effective communication skills and an ability to work across disciplines.
One of the novel and important findings from Atwood’s research to date has been that native predators like sharks increase carbon accumulation and retention in many coastal wetland soils through their effects on the food web. The overall positive effect of predators on soil carbon stocks and sequestration rates were consistent across seagrasses, salt marshes, mangroves and coral reef ecosystems – a compelling finding, she said. But in this complex system, it’s important to consider all the factors affecting climate change.
“Since the award is not attached to a specific project, I’m able to use the support to do high-risk, high-reward science of my choosing,” she said. “I intend to use it to explore questions about human effects on the marine carbon cycle.”
Nancy Huntly, professor and director of the Ecology Center at USU acts as Atwood’s mentor, a requirement of the fellowship.
“As scientists, our schooling focuses on scientific integrity,” said Atwood. “Unfortunately, most of us weren’t trained to navigate the plethora of other responsibilities that come along with being a professor – such as managing budgets, leading a diverse lab group, developing and teaching courses, public outreach and mentoring students. Having access to an experienced mentor makes a big difference to the success of all of those pursuits.”
Watershed Science and Ecology
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S. J. Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources