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Ecology Program Overview

Indian River Lagoon: An Estuary of National Significance 

Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI) has been conducting research on marine wildlife in the IRL and along the nearby Atlantic coast for over 30 years and maintains a laboratory on the IRL, and an office in Orlando.  Ocean health and marine vertebrate ecology programs at HSWRI are addressing potential impacts of environmental change and human activities on marine and coastal wildlife and the habitats they depend upon.   

To adequately address the problems facing the Indian River Lagoon requires a coordinated and collaborative relationship with resource managers, researchers and the community.  HSWRI research collaborators include the NOAA Fisheries’ Southeastern U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the FFWCC’s Florida Wildlife Research Institute, universities including the Florida Institute of Technology and Florida Atlantic University, and our zoological partner, SeaWorld Orlando.

Space-Ocean Links in Marine Research 

The extension of human senses into space and the application of remote Earth-sensing technologies have been key developments in the exploration of the oceans during the past century. The application of space-based technologies has become key in documenting, interpreting, understanding and predicting the coupled physical effects of ocean and atmospheric climate on the vitality and well-being of human populations and cultures. These same technologies have also been used routinely to locate and facilitate extraction of physical, chemical and biological resources important for sustaining human societies and economies. Development of technologies for determining the habits, habitats and abundance of living marine resources has, however, generally lagged behind.

Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute is taking advantage of emerging opportunities to use space technologies, remote sensing instruments, and Earth observation platforms to transform the way marine animals are observed in the wild. Current HSWRI programs to outfit sea turtles, pinnipeds, whale sharks, and other fishes with data recording instruments that document their movements and sample the characteristics of the habitats they swim in are among the largest and most productive collaborative programs of their kind in the world. These programs are providing important information on the biogeography of these species and are allowing HSWRI scientists to evaluate the relative impact of factors such as environmental variability, prey availability and coastal development on marine vertebrates and the habitats they depend on.
These projects provide input to marine resource managers about key variables that affect the distribution and abundance of protected marine animal species, facilitating sustainable use and conservation of marine ecosystems.

Program summary 

Ecology is a sub-discipline of science that aims to document, understand, and predict patterns of distribution and abundance of life forms, and to understand how those patterns are shaped by interactions among individuals of a species, by interactions of populations of a species with each other, by interactions among species, and by the effects of physical (i.e., temperature, wind, water, geology) factors on those interactions. Ecologists must consider all biological and physical factors that might explain why an animal occurs in some places and not others, why its population is growing or shrinking, and how the species interacts with other elements of the communities within an ecosystem. Knowledge of these patterns and interactions is the first step in predicting a species' responses to human activities, to other species, and to environmental changes.

Ecological studies are often multi- and inter-disciplinary and consequently engage most other fields of science to help model, design, execute, and interpret field and laboratory investigations. Consequently, our research studies in the Ecology Program almost always integrate and collaborate with the other core programs at HSWRI and with many physical and biological scientific programs at other institutions and agencies. Our research projects, that involve applied studies to assist decision makers and wildlife managers at various offices in the U.S. and in other countries, address compelling questions of the consequences of particular interactions among wildlife populations and concerns about the effects of interactions of humans and human activities on wildlife populations. But our research projects are sometimes basic studies motivated by direct interests in basic questions of how, when, and where do animals reproduce, how they manage to survive to reproduce especially when interacting with competing species and predators, and how they respond physiologically and physically to short and long term variations in climate, habitat, food, predators, and competitors.

Conservation impact 

Long-term (i.e., ten years or longer) ecological studies are essential for making sound management decisions for long-lived species like marine mammals, sea turtles, sea birds, and large fishes. The HSWRI Marine Vertebrate Ecology Laboratory (MarVEL) has conducted an uninterrupted study of seals and sea lions at the California Channel Islands since 1978. This 35-year investment in long-term ecosystem research, almost unheard-of for large mammals, has provided a strong foundation for addressing questions about the factors that limit and regulate populations of these protected species. The HSWRI ecology program in Florida has worked with bottlenose dolphins since the 1970s, including conducting the first abundance estimate for dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon, the first examination of dispersal and distribution of dolphins near Mosquito Lagoon and the first demographic analysis of dolphins in the region (producing a model life table for bottlenose dolphins worldwide). In addition to these ‘back-yard' programs, HSWRI has worked collaboratively with others in long-term studies of migratory birds in North America, seals in the Antarctic, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and whale sharks around the planet.

The decades-long continuity of these ecological programs, consisting of applied and basic research, has inspired and facilitated innovative and pioneering research far beyond the goals and intent of the initial studies (e.g., discovery of novel viruses and emerging zoonotic diseases, advances in molecular genetics). Long-term integrated studies like these have become exceptionally valued as touchstone programs for understanding the dynamics of biological communities and ecosystems and the influence of human activities on their vitality and sustainability. We intend to continue these important long-term studies and to enhance their benefits to general understandings of structure and function of biological communities in Earth's oceans. New initiatives will focus on unique ecosystems that can serve as models for less-accessible areas of the world and on systems identified as areas of national and international significance (e.g., wildlife refuges).  

Understanding the oceans and its many inhabitants