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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Academics & Research

Biology group research oil spill aftermath

Group leader, undergraduate student Brittany DeLoach McCall, samples insects in the salt marshes as part of the group's research. | Courtesy of Steven Pennings

The UH Department of Biology and Biochemistry received a $131,115 grant to collect and test spiders, crabs and insects from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts for effects from the oil spill. 

Biology professor Steven Pennings and his group are in charge of the research.

“We’ve sampled two sites in Texas so far, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge,” Pennings said. “We are heading east, sampling another seven or eight sites on the Gulf Coast and then about 11 sites on the Atlantic Coast.”

He said that the sites that have been sampled have shown no obvious signs of oil.

“We’re expecting these sites essentially in Texas to be control sites that should be the same this year as they were last year,” Pennings said. “Most of the oil is in the Louisiana area, and if it’s moving, it’s moving toward the eastern gulf rather than the western gulf.”

This project evolved from a previous study that involved geographic variation in salt marsh food webs that Pennings and his group worked on last year.

“We had sampled 22 sites along our coastlines in 2009,” Pennings said. “So when the oil spill happened, that put us in a great position to go back and sample those sites again and see how things had changed at sites that had been exposed to oil compared to sites that had not been exposed to oil.”

Pennings’ group consists of five people, including two graduate students, a summer student employed by UH and two volunteers from Germany.

“They came from Germany to work in my lab, and then we made plans when this opportunity came along because it was the perfect thing for them to do,” Pennings said. “It is an interesting project for them to do because they’re reading about the oil spill in German newspapers, so it’s very interesting for them to come and work on it.”

Brittany DeLoach McCall, a master’s candidate from Pennings’ lab, leads the group. McCall also led the previous year’s geographic variations study.

The grant was received over the summer and is a special category of grant called a “rapid grant” that the National Science Foundation gives in response to unexpected events.

“It was three to four weeks from when I first contacted them to when I had the money in hand, so that allowed us to know that we could start planning for this trip,” Pennings said.

The grant covers travel expenses, the salaries of the three people in the group who are being paid and the processing expenses of the samples.

“Without the grant, this project would not have been possible,” Pennings said. 

According to a UH news release, the group uses giant vacuums powered by lawnmower engines. Samples will be taken over the next two months from the Texas Gulf all the way up the Eastern seaboard.

Processing of the samples, which will be preserved in alcohol and sorted at UH, is expected to take six moths.

“The strength of this research is that we have the ‘before’ data from last year so we can see how things have changed in response to the oil spill,” Pennings said in the news release.

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