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Rising Tides, Rising Temperatures

UM Studies Animals to Evaluate Earth’s Environmental Health

Story by Chloe Clement, Leo Frank and Madison Cole

What do shorebirds, oysters and frogs have in common? All three are considered indicators of the earth’s environmental health. Three University of Mississippi scientists are studying these organisms to better understand the impact of climate change in the state and beyond.

Habitat Loss and Dwindling Populations

In a small, shared office in Shoemaker Hall, biology graduate student Emma Counce is researching Mississippi’s migratory shorebird populations, searching for ways to protect their dwindling populations from the effects of climate change.

Emma Counce
Emma Counce successfully defended her master’s thesis this past fall on the migratory patterns of shorebirds in the Mississippi Delta. She was a founding member, along with others, of the Magnolia Grove Audubon Campus Chapter.
Photo by Mark Dolan.

“Globally, shorebirds are declining. There are probably a lot of interconnected reasons for that, but the one reason of focus is loss of stopover habitat,” Counce said.

During migration, shorebirds need places to stop along the way in order to eat and rest. These destinations are what researchers call stopover habitats. These are predominantly natural wetlands, shorelines or mudflats. Many stopover habitats that would have naturally formed have been lost due to the conversion of wetlands.

Thanks to the rise of temperature occurring earlier in the spring season and lasting longer in the fall season, areas of natural stopover habitat are becoming drier and remaining dry for longer periods of time. This creates a problem for migratory shorebirds.

“With the lack of wetlands, shorebirds will continue to decline and that is what motivates my research. I never want to see a species of shorebirds decline,” Counce said.

Counce said that it is essential to understand the effects of climate change on all aspects of life.

“The big point is that everything has inherent value even if it is not explicitly useful to humans, and that is how I feel about these shorebirds. It is deeply concerning that these birds are declining,”  she said.

Climate change is seeping into the daily lives of every individual, whether noticeable or not. It is essential to seek out conservation methods to prevent detrimental outcomes.

Climate Change Stresses Organisms

Deborah Gochfeld grew up loving the outdoors. As an environmental toxicologist at the University of Mississippi, she has plenty of opportunities to explore nature. Gochfeld studies the effects of climate stressors such as heat, drought and violent storms on various aquatic animals and their surrounding ecosystems.

“It’s been really hard to watch,” Gochfeld said, regarding the deterioration of coral reefs over the last few decades.

One of Gochfeld’s recent projects involved the study of oyster larval populations in Mississippi.

Oysters, historically a big source of revenue for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, have been heavily impacted by low salinity levels caused by climate change, threatening both a thriving industry and an essential part of coastal ecosystems.

Gochfield said many environmental factors have recently bombarded oysters, ravaging their ecosystem and harming reproduction patterns. She said seawater temperatures in Florida recently reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, unheard of until now.

Gochfeld and other climate scientists at the University of Mississippi know that something major must change, both in the state and in the world. Her research reiterates the conclusion that science has shown time and time again: There is no short-term solution to problems of this nature. Either humanity will change, or the climate will.

Michel Ohme
Michel Ohmer is holding a narrowmouth toad while doing fieldwork in Louisiana, studying amphibian disease. Photo by Jeffery Bednark.

No Short-term Solution

Michel Ohmer, assistant professor of biology at the University of Mississippi, is working with graduate students to assess the health of various species of frogs in hopes of projecting how long they will survive on a warming planet.

Ohmer is researching amphibian diseases and conservation efforts. Frogs are harbingers of the planet’s health, pollution levels and diseases in the environment. She always knew she wanted to study herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, believing amphibians “are quite an imperiled group of organisms.”

Ohmer said that 40% of all amphibians are threatened, and many of the threats stem from climate change. Frogs have semi-permeable skin and are ectothermic, meaning that their body temperature is dependent on the world around them. With the world heating up, the loss of amphibians would be detrimental to the Earth’s biodiversity and would unbalance many ecosystems. Ohmer said up to 500 species have been affected.

Outside of keeping ecosystems in check, frogs are also important from the perspective of human medicine in the production of antimicrobial peptides. These peptides are produced on their skin and help them ward off predators, parasites and pathogens. These peptides are being studied to help humans. The continued loss of species could be detrimental as new diseases and viruses continue to develop.

According to Counce, Gochfeld and Ohmer, climate change is impacting humankind through its effect on different ecosystems. Only unified action will affect climate change.

School of Journalism and New Media student Ruth Mayo edited this story.

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