October Program with Jesene Aquino-Thomas

Jessene Aquino-Thomas is a Ph.D. candidate in Integrative Biology at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). She has a M.S. in Biology, a B.S. in Biology, and a B.A. in Anthropology/Sociology. Jessene has previously worked on several assessment and restoration projects including; The Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Assessing impacts on a critical habitat, oyster reeds and associated species in Florida Gulf estuaries, and St. Lucie and Loxahatchee Rivers Restoration project. She was part of a group at FAU that constructed a nature trail, butterfly gardens, and a community vegetable garden. Integral to the construction of these projects was education; on the natural trail grade school children were informed about Florida’s natural environments, and the community gardens were used to teach underprivileged children about sustainable agriculture. Jessene has worked extensively in the mangrove ecosystem, recently publishing one of the first papers on oysters residing on mangroves. Her current research focuses on a modification to current theory, this revision pioneers new study into interactions between foundation species and how these interactions facilitate biodiversity and resilience in near shore ecosystems. Fundamental to appreciating the role of foundation species, such as mangroves and oysters, is understanding what ecological functions are lost when foundation species are replaced with man-made structures. An off shot, of her dissertation research is a side project that has received a lot of public notice is artificial prop roots sea walls. The construction of shoreline armoring systems that benefit both the near shore ecosystem and humans is a logical extension of her research. A central theme to Jessene’s research is that coastal regions are an interface where not only the needs of the marine species, but also the cultural needs of humans have to be considered and understood.

Ecological foundation species are critical to community structure and ecological functions. However, the combined consequences of multiple foundation species co-occuring are poorly understood. My research investigates the connections between a primary foundation species (mangroves), dominant secondary foundations species (oysters, sponges, and barnacles), and the resulting biodiversity. Foundation species are habitat-modifying species that form the base of the community, have a disproportionate large effect on a community and typically promote increases in abundance, diversity, resilience, food web complexity, and productivity. Secondary foundation species are categorized as foundation species, but in a particular ecosystem are residing on another foundation species. The main objective of the research is to analyze the effect of the dominant secondary foundation species on mangrove prop roots along a latitudinal gradient and how these different species may affect the ecological functions within the system and test it against the current ecological theory for foundation species and my modification to the current theory.