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Mark A. Moline and Neil C. Sturchio of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment have received project of the year awards from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP).
SERDP is the environmental science and technology program of the Department of Defense, planned and executed in partnership with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It is rare for two researchers from the same university and unit to be recognized by this competitive program. We are very proud to see our talented faculty’s research recognized by such a prestigious organization,” said Mohsen Badiey, acting dean of the college.
Moline, director of the School of Marine Science and Policy, was part of a team honored for its resource conservation and resiliency project, which involved mapping of deep-diving teuthivorous, or squid-eating, whales and their prey field.
The project team was led by Kelly J. Benoit-Bird from Oregon State University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and included Moline and Brandon L. Southall of Southall Environmental Associates.
Sturchio, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences, was part of a team recognized for its environmental restoration project, which involved tracking the uptake, translocation, cycling and metabolism of munitions compounds in coastal marine ecosystems.
Led by Craig R. Tobias of the University of Connecticut, the team included Sturchio, Penny Vlahos of the University of Connecticut, John Karl Bohlke of the U.S. Geological Survey, Stephen Fallis of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division and Richard W. Smith of Global Aquatic Research LLC.
About the mapping project
The team developed a new platform developed to carry the acoustic instruments needed to assess squid populations, which have proven to be difficult research subjects because of their rapid speed, relatively large size and ability to dive deep in the ocean.
Moline and colleagues also used these new tools to understand the foraging ecology of deep-diving squid eaters, primarily Cuvier’s beaked whales and Risso’s dolphins, and to sample the distribution of their prey on and off a U.S. Navy testing range.
According to SERDP, the work uncovered “remarkable differences” in prey characteristics between regions at depth, changes that were unobserved in surface layers.
“The revelation that animals deep in the water column are so spatially heterogeneous at scales from 10 meters to 50 kilometers critically affects the understanding of the processes driving predator-prey interactions, energy transfer, biogeochemical cycling, and other ecological processes in the deep sea and the connections between the productive surface mixed layer and the deep water column,” the citation noted.
The team also explored the behavior of Risso’s dolphins forging in shallower areas, and found that the dolphins dove to discrete prey layers throughout the day and night.
SERDP hailed the work as significant, and said the technology and approaches are already being transitioned to additional research applications.
About the tracking project
With 41 active Department of Defense installations located within the coastal zones of the contiguous 48 United States, Sturchio and colleagues worked to track common munitions constituents, TNT and RDX, which are recognized as EPA priority pollutants.
SERDP noted that coastal habitats are highly productive, nitrogen-limited, and economically valuable ecosystems. Their response to munitions compounds and their effect on munitions cycling, persistence, bioaccumulation, and mineralization are largely unknown.
The team worked to quantify the pathways and rates of RDX and TNT processing at three typical coastal ecotypes: subtidal vegetated, subtidal unvegetated, and intertidal salt marsh. They used 15N-labeled RDX and TNT to trace the environmental fate of these compounds and their breakdown products.
Researchers sought to understand the uptake rates of these compounds and which ecosystem components are important regulators of processing. In addition, they investigated which ecosystem components act as zones of storage for munitions compounds versus those that promote metabolism, and whether ecosystem characteristics relate to processing or accumulation of munitions compounds.
Finally, the team determined the extent to which these compounds were mineralized to inert inorganic end products.
Study results showed that TNT and RDX are processed in all ecotypes, and that while TNT loss is uniform across all sediment types, RDX loss is a function of organic matter content and redox conditions.
SERDP said the results also demonstrated that these parent munitions compounds and primary common derivatives are unlikely to persist in marine environments.
SERDP said the valuable data gleaned from this study will provide a quantitative assessment of marine habitats as bioaccumulators or natural attenuators of munitions compounds.
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