Cultivating Summer Research

Graduate student Lauren Neel studies the Florida scrub lizard (note: the lizard she is holding is not the Florida scrub lizard). Photo Courtesy David Curlis

Graduate student Matthew Scanlon investigates interactions between shrimp fishermen and sharks and sawfish along the Georgia coast.

Two graduate students awarded $4,000 research assistantships

What if you could spend the summer researching the scientific subject of your choice? Graduate students Lauren Neel and Matthew Scanlon did just that after they were named recipients of the 2016 Institute for Coastal Plain Science (ICPS) Summer Graduate Student Research Assistantships. Both students are in the master’s program in the Department of Biology, and used the $4,000 stipend for their thesis research.

Interactions Between Shrimpers and Shark

Scanlon investigated interactions between shrimp fishermen and sharks and sawfish along the Georgia coast. He accompanied shrimpers to document how often shrimp nets get damaged and which fish species are causing damage.

“The Georgia shrimp fishery is a vital part of the state’s economy,” Scanlon said. “Fishermen express frustration with interactions with sharks, which follow the boats and bite holes in their nets in an attempt to predate on their catch. This leads to a loss of time and money repairing nets that could otherwise be invested in more time fishing for shrimp.”

In addition to working with local shrimp fishermen to document the frequency and cost of shark depredation on shrimp nets, he studied other variables such as how the frequency of the interactions relates to location, temperature, turbidity, trawl time, species, and trawl depth.

“Next summer for the second chapter of my thesis, I plan on developing an inexpensive electrogenic deterrent system that can be implemented on the nets to reduce the frequency of damage from sharks,” he noted.

Scanlon, from Corona, California, earned an undergraduate degree from California State University, Fullerton in 2015. His current adviser, Christine Bedore, Ph.D., was his ichthyology (the study of fish) professor during his last semester as an undergraduate. When she joined the Georgia Southern faculty as an assistant professor, he joined her lab as one of her first graduate students.

“I am honored and thrilled to have received the Graduate Student Research Assistantship from the Institute for Coastal Plain Science, and I will work hard to represent ICPS and the great science that it supports,” he said.

Thermal Adaptation in the Florida Scrub Lizard

Neel also expressed her appreciation for the summer research assistantship. Originally from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, she received her bachelor’s degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

“While at West Chester I had the opportunity to conduct research in Pennsylvania, Costa Rica, Panama and Puerto Rico on a wide range of topics,” she said. “As I gained more research experience, I began to realize that I was particularly interested in the eco-physiology and evolution of lizards. Through reading scientific literature I discovered the work of my current research advisor, Dr. Lance McBrayer. I found his work to be interesting so I decided to join his lab to pursue my master’s degree.”

For her thesis work she is studying the thermal biology of the Florida scrub lizard (Sceloporus woodi) in both long-leaf pine and sand pine scrub habitats. The Florida scrub lizard is endemic to the Ocala National Forest in central Florida. The data she collected last summer found that environmental temperatures were higher in longleaf than in scrub habitats. However, body temperatures were the same among all sites, indicating differences in thermoregulatory behavior. Also, thermoregulatory effectiveness was greater in longleaf pine habitats, suggesting that animals more carefully regulated their body temperatures as they approached their upper critical thermal limit.

To better understand the thermal landscape of the Florida scrub lizard, Lauren spent the summer in Ocala evaluating the thermal sensitivity of sprinting performance and critical thermal limits. Fragmentation of habitat poses a major threat to the species in the southeastern Coastal Plain and results from Neel’s study will be used to predict how the Florida scrub lizard may fare in a globally changing climate.

Neel said receiving this assistantship has allowed her to attain the sample sizes necessary to evaluate her research question and has significantly enhanced the progress she has made towards degree completion. — Sandra Bennett