Rowan group watches nature's toil and trouble

By Stephanie Brown
sbrown@sjnewsco.com

Dr. Michael Grove disappeared into the dense, tall grass along the Maurice River to retrieve a dark blue Fiddler crab no larger than a golf ball.

Holding the crab carefully by its one large claw, Grove, the Rowan University biology professor, discussed the impact the creature has on South Jersey salt marshes.

"It's interesting that such a small thing can really control so much of what goes on out here," said Grove, shooing away the ubiquitous gnats and green heads with his free hand.

For the past four summers, Grove and a number of Rowan students have been researching the impact an invasive plant species has on the Fiddler crab and, consequently, the entire salt marsh ecosystem.

All along the tidal mudflats, one can see little holes dug by the crabs. These burrows can be up to 30 centimeters deep about one foot and are used for mating sites and for protection from predators.

Fiddler crabs are important, explained Grove, because their burrowing process effectively tills the mud.

Tilling brings more oxygen into the mud, leading to greater nutrient release and increased plant growth.

These nutrients and plants provide a food source for higher levels in the marsh food chain, like blue crabs, fish and wading birds.

However, the invasion of Phragmites australis a common reed over the past 50 to 100 years could have a profound negative impact on this process.

Compared to the marsh's native grass, Spartina atlerniflora, Phragmites have a complex root system. Grove thinks the roots are preventing the crabs from digging, and thus, diminishing the amount of nutrients in the mud.

"Certainly from a human perspective from a commercial perspective it could be reducing the number of commercially important species," he said.

Parts along the Maurice River in Cumberland County are overrun with Phragmites, which can be identified by their red seeds.

"I don't think people realize how destructive invasive species can be," said Scott Schneider, a recent Rowan graduate who worked with Grove this summer.

Grove's study is one of many performed by Rowan University staff and students.

Last year, Rowan's faculty brought in $5.5 million in research grants, according to James Newell, interim associate provost for academic affairs.

"We tend to talk a lot of the tech things but there's a really a wide spectrum of the things that get done here," said Newell. "There's things as diverse as looking at the history of mob violence, and Russia's political systems since the collapse of Soviet Union."

Ben Meehan, a biology major at Rowan who worked with Grove this summer on his study of the Fiddler crab, said he decided to participate in the project primarily for the field work experience.

"And to get dirty in the mud," said Meehan, who will be a senior this fall.

The Office of Government Grants supports faculty and staff seeking to conduct research. Some services offered by the office includes assisting in the identification of possible funding opportunities for a project or program, and advising and assisting applicants in preparing a budget, as well as in structuring, sequencing, and packaging a proposal.

Newell said the university encourages research that spans different disciplines.

"If you can reach out and not be stuck in whatever discipline you come form it opens much bigger problems and much bigger opportunities for fact to deal with," Newell said.

Faculty and students also publish research papers and present their work at regional or national conferences.

Grove plans to write a paper for publication this fall. The paper would cover the research conducted in the first two years of his study in which compared the number of crab burrows in marshes with native Spartina versus the invasive Phragmites.

Grove also plans to write a conclusive paper the end of next summer, when he anticipates his research to be completed.

While research is an integral part of Rowan's mission, it's importance does not supersede teaching, said Newell.

"We would never tenure a bad teacher because they were a good researcher," Newell said.

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Date Published: Sunday, August 26, 2007 - 01:00