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Researcher Says Seaweed Can Provide Snapshot Of Ocean Life

Most people squirm when they come across a slimy clump of seaweed on the beach, but one scientist says the plant can teach us a lot about marine life.

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Smaller fishes, such as filefishes and triggerfishes, reside in and among the brown Sargassum (seaweed). Image credit: NOAA

 

I’m on a boat with Lindsay Martin about 25 miles off the coast of Galveston. She keeps an eye on the water, looking to spot leafy, brown clusters of sargassum, or seaweed. Large amounts of it washed up along the Gulf Coast last summer. But today, there’s none in sight. Martin says sargassum landings can be unpredictable. They’re a function of the winds, the currents and other climate conditions.

“You could go out one day to the same location and see something completely different,” Martin says.

Martin is gathering samples of sargassum from the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic and the Caribbean. She’s comparing how the algae varies in ecosystems around the world.

Many beach-goers encounter bits of the seaweed when it washes up onshore. But in the ocean, it makes up large, free-floating clusters that can stretch for miles.

Martin is studying the wide range of animals that live in sargassum.

“So I’m looking at fish and crabs and shrimp, but it’s a really vital habitat for sea turtles as well,” she says. “People don’t recognize that. When it washes up onshore, it can hinder sea turtles, but when they’re out in the ocean, you get juvenile sea turtles that live in the sargassum and it offers a lot of protection.”

Because of the rich biodiversity it supports, Martin says sargassum can provide a valuable snapshot of marine ecosystems.

“When things change, either because of climate change or oil spills, if we see differences then, we’re going to know what it used to be like and be able to compare it,” she says.

Martin didn’t spot any seaweed on this trip, but she’s hoping the currents will bring it her way soon.

 

Editorial correction: The word “plant” was changed to “algae” for the correct classification. 

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Tomeka Weatherspoon

Senior Producer

Tomeka Weatherspoon is an Emmy-award winning producer. She produces segments, the weekly television program Arts InSight, the short film showcase The Territory and a forthcoming digital series on innovation. Originally from the Midwest, Tomeka studied convergence journalism from the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri. She has...

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