Rockweed is sometimes called an “ecosystem engineer,” because its branched structure alters the surrounding environment, and creates space for other species to find shelter and food.
Rockweed is sometimes called an “ecosystem engineer,” because its branched structure alters the surrounding environment, and creates space for other species to find shelter and food. The marine alga also is a valuable source of nutrients and other compounds with commercial purposes. In the past decade, increased harvesting has led to questions about the effects on the “engineered” ecosystem of a rockweed bed — queries that are driving Hannah Webber’s research.
Webber graduated from the University of Maine in 1998 with a master’s degree in zoology. In her position as research and education projects manager with Schoodic Institute, she brought the Signs of the Seasons project on rockweed phenology to Schoodic Point. Once she started studying the rockweed ecosystem, she found that it became more than just a beautiful aspect of the Maine coast, but “a system of curiosity.”
“And rockweed had all of these issues about harvesting and questions about impact and regrowth,” she says. Curious, she decided to focus more deeply on rockweed, and pursue a Ph.D. with Amanda Klemmer and Brian Olsen in UMaine’s School of Biology and Ecology, and Jessica Muhlin, associate professor of marine biology at Maine Maritime Academy, who received funding from Maine Sea Grant in 2018 to study rockweed ecology.
Two other graduate students are part of the project. Elliot Johnston is studying the birds that use rockweed as habitat, and Hannah Mittelstaedt is looking at invertebrates.
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Image via University of Maine.