Kate Schoenrock (@katesrock) is originally from California, and decided to become a marine botanist after a long internship working with marine mammals. After cleaning up poop for years, she found that the intricate adaptations of marine algae (honestly all the different ways they have sex) sparked her imagination and investigation into species ecology and evolution! These seaweeds have brought her around the world, from Antarctica to Greenland, and now Ireland. Best part of the job? Wearing a wetsuit (or drysuit) to work. (Photo credit: Alex Ingle)
You can catch Kate on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July, where she will give a talk entitled: Kelp me! What does kelp do for its community?
We need to talk about… kelp.
By Kate Schoenrock
Irish Seaweed. I am an ‘invasive’ in Ireland, somehow finding my way back across the Atlantic to a place so many Americans call the homeland. My move was driven by a different personal connection though: seaweeds! Ireland’s coastlines are rich in seaweed species, and it is famous among phycologists (scientists who study marine botany) for its diversity and dedication to studying species identification and commercial uses (nutraceuticals). But researchers, naturally land-based, have studied what they find between the tides, leaving a hole in our understanding of seaweed in the sub-tidal.
Why kelp? Kelp are seaweeds within a specific taxonomic family called Laminariales, which form forests from the low intertidal to the shallow subtidal (< 60 m depth in most regions of the world). They are originally called ‘kelp’ because people used to burn seaweeds to make potash as a fertilizer for the land, and the most common species they would use would be the kelps that dominated the habitat. The subtidal kelps we find in Ireland are mostly dominated by Laminaria hyperborea (May Weed) and found all over Europe, from Norway in the north to Portugal in the south.
Kelp forest ecology. In our oceans, marine species have adapted complex strategies to surviving predation, finding food, and enduring harsh environments which drives them to utilize one or many habitat types during their lives. In Ireland kelp forests provide a home for many characters such as the common lobster and the Cod who come and go with the seasons. I study kelp forest habitats in the west of Ireland to unravel the unknown, intricate relationships between kelp forest and its aggregate trophic levels 1) to create a big picture of how kelps feed and house the marine community throughout the year and 2) determine how important kelp are to commercial species, and as a harvested species themselves.
Why does it matter? Worldwide kelp forests are threatened by warming oceans and marine heatwaves which are restricting the presence of these forests northward, as well as harvesting and overgrazing. When L. hyperborea forests are stressed, native kelps are replaced by invasive species such as Sargassum muticum (Wire weed), Undaria pinnatifida (Wakame), which we already see in harbors around Ireland and know change the ecology of the region. But we can only know what these changes are by investigating the natural productivity and diversity of kelp forests right now.
I use SCUBA diving to do the research in kelp forests, diving into the habitat to collect data that describes the natural history of the region throughout the year. There is nothing better than watching predation and behaviors of the kelp inhabitants throughout the year, like the spiney crabs who troll the drift algae starting in spring and the diving lions mane that scrapes the kelp canopy from May-June. Of course summer research is always more pleasant than winter, but these dynamic environments always have something to offer.