Stress is a part of everyday life, even for animals. Everyone has experienced how stress can affect our mood, appetite, and interactions with others. Animals have similar reactions when stressed and experience many stressful events ranging from extreme temperature to antagonistic encounters with other animals. Stressful disturbances may cause animals to change their behavior and move more cautiously or seek shelter. Animals also experience a physiological stress response that affects metabolism which, in conjunction with behavioral changes, can have a negative impact on the animal’s well being. Recently, many researchers have tried to understand how human impacts affect animal stress, however, the stressful effects of natural events in the wild are still poorly understood. Certainly, the threat of predation can cause stress for animals in the wild. Like many organisms, fish are most vulnerable to predation when they are small, during early development. Stress during early development may have important consequences for fish later in life. My research focuses on the effects of stress due to predation threat on juveniles of the local species the giant kelpfish. Specifically, I use kelp bass and juvenile giant kelpfish as a model predator-prey system to examine how kelpfish respond to the stress of predation threat both behaviorally and physiologically. I quantify the physiological stress response of kelpfish to predation threat by measuring the amount of the hormone, cortisol, that kelpfish produce. I pursue these research interests through a series of laboratory and field experiments based at CMIL.
Growing up on a barrier island along the east coast of central Florida I had a close relationship with the water. I always wanted to know how things work, a desire I continue to have today. As I spent a lot of time at the beaches and lagoons surrounding my home the desire to know how things work expanded to include the biological workings of my surroundings. When I started my undergraduate degree at Florida State University (FSU) I knew that I wanted to study biology, however, I was unsure which discipline in biology appealed to me most. Luckily, I had an opportunity to study abroad at James Cook University (JCU) in Cairns, Australia during my sophomore year. My coursework at JCU included many field trips into environments ranging from coral reefs, to savannah lands, to tropical rainforests. The experience of studying ecology and exploring the natural environment in Australia solidified my interest in ecology. Upon my return to FSU I was accepted into the Certificate program in Marine Resource Ecology and Conservation. Through the certificate program I worked on research projects both in groups and individually. All of these experiences contributed to my desire to continue my studies in marine ecology after graduation which brought me to the M.S. program at San Diego State University.
Broadly, my research interests lie in ecology, understanding the factors driving interactions among organisms and the environment. I am particularly interested in the interactions between predators and their prey and how habitat composition can affect those interactions. I am also interested in how stress resulting from both human impacts and natural interactions can affect organisms in the wild.
My day as an ecologist can vary greatly depending on the task at hand. Some tasks require me to work with aquaria at the marine lab, or SCUBA dive to collect fish, while others bring me to our laboratory on campus to conduct chemical analyses of the fish from my experiments. When I am running experiments my day starts early (generally an hour before sunrise) because the kelp bass that I use in my experiments are most active at dawn and dusk. Maintaining holding tanks to keep fish alive and healthy for my experiments is also an important part of my daily routine. Fish must be fed every day and tanks cleaned once to twice a week. I enjoy how each day of research brings new challenges to think through and overcome.
Underprivileged children have few opportunities to experience the outdoors and frequently view science as inaccessible. People who spend time in natural environments are healthier both mentally and physically than those who spend all their time in urban environments. I have seen the positive effects of bringing youth into the outdoors, firsthand, through volunteering with Outdoor Outreach (OO). OO is a San Diego based organization with the mission “to empower at-risk and underprivileged youth to make positive, lasting changes in their lives through comprehensive outdoor programming.” I have found it very fun and rewarding to teach OO participants about local environments through activities like hiking, snowboarding, kayaking, and even learning to swim. There are many great outreach organizations in San Diego, get out there and volunteer! You never know what you might gain in the process.