Auburn professor, former student awarded National Science Foundation grant to study new Hawaiian habitats

Published: May 27, 2020
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Auburn University Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences Scott Santos and his former graduate student, Justin Havird, recently received a two-year, $90,055 Rapid Response Research award from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to study new habitats on the island of Hawaii.

When the volcano Kīlauea erupted in Hawaii in 2018, the outpouring of lava created new, unusual habitats on the island of Hawaii. The motivation for the grant came from a discovery the two scientists made when they were conducting field research near the Kīlauea eruption last year.

“This grant stems from an observation that we made late last year when we were doing some work near Hilo on the island of Hawaii,” said Havird, now an assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “We found these habitats that had been created during the 2018 Kīlauea eruption. When Kīlauea erupted, it destroyed many homes, but it also created a lot of new coastline.

“As the lava flowed, it cooled and created a lot of black, sandy beaches. When it did this, it apparently created some new habitats belonging to the anchialine ecosystem. To my knowledge, this is the first time that these habitats have been created in a natural process.”

Anchialine habitats are coastal water bodies that are not connected on the surface to the ocean, but are connected underground, both to the ocean and to the freshwater aquafer. The main focus of the grant will be to identify how anchialine habitats are colonized by life—both microscopic organisms like bacteria and larger plants and animals.

“Because of those connections, you have things like fluctuating salinity,” Havird said. “Water levels in these habitats usually rise and fall with the tides as well. They’re really kind of extreme habitats. They’ve got a unique set of animals, plants and microbes that live in them, especially in Hawaii.”

Havird—who worked with Santos while he earned his doctorate in biological sciences at Auburn University from 2009-14—will serve as principal investigator. Santos will serve as co-principal investigator on the research project, which is titled: “Micro- and macro-ecological succession in anchialine habitats during creation via volcanism.”

The area is close to one of the first anchialine habitats where Santos collected samples when he first began working at Auburn University in 2004. In 2016, he once again collected samples from the same area.

“Now we can see what was happening immediately before the eruption, what was going on immediately after and also go back in time over 15 years,” Santos said. “I also have animals from that same area in culture here at Auburn since 2006. We’re going to see what might also have happened with those populations after the eruption compared to what’s in culture.”

Santos added this is important work for the Department of Biological Sciences because it adds a new dimension to the research he has been involved in since 2004.

“The ability to say when a habitat was created, you don’t get that every day,” he said. “We really can age these habitats down to a couple of days or weeks span of time. It’s a unique opportunity, and I think that’s why the NSF was interested in funding it—this doesn’t happen every day for any ecosystem, especially unusual ones like the anchialine ecosystem. We’ve got an opportunity to take this forward and build an interesting story that we’ve contributed to significantly in the past. Now we can contribute significantly to its future.”

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