URI student researches method of tracking lobster larvae migration

KINGSTON, R.I. — November 15, 2000 — A University of Rhode Island junior spent last summer doing research that could improve the management of the lobster industry. Fremont, N.H., resident Abigail Knee studied a potential method of tracking the migration of lobster larvae as part of a URI Coastal Fellowship. She attempted to locate a collected lobster larva’s point of origin by analyzing its carbon composition, “a technique that has effectively tracked the migrations of birds, crab larvae and shrimp. I examined whether carbon composition analysis could in fact determine a lobster larva’s origin,” she said. “Currently, scientists are not able to follow the migration of these larvae, which are transported great distances aided by waves, winds and currents,” said Knee. Tracking larvae aims to help biologists and fisheries managers sustain this population. Better tracking could help fishery managers determine which American lobster stocks are most threatened. Working with former URI Biological Science Researcher Michael Clancy, Knee’s research began with larvae collection. Over 100 samples of larvae were obtained from six sites in Rhode Island and Maine, as well as cultured larvae from URI’s East Farm. Knee collected the samples from Rhode Island waters using finely-meshed nets. They were then frozen and preserved in vials. The samples were brought to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lab, where some were dissected and all tested for their carbon compositions. Working with EPA chemist Mark Cantwell, Knee’s analyses have shown some interesting implications. “The data has shown so far that the carbon compositions did vary between the samples,” Knee said. This may support the hypothesis that variation exists between larvae of different origins. Apparently, an individual’s carbon composition changes as their food changes on their travels through different environments. Scientists think that changes in the larva appear first in the gut, followed by the muscles and then the shell. This gradual change in carbon composition provides clues to the larvae’s origin and route of travel. Knee said that her findings are just the beginning. More research is necessary before biologists can use such a technique to track these larvae. “It was great to work on a project from start to finish, giving me a real sense of ownership in the research,” she said. This is not the first time that Knee, a marine biology major, has worked with Clancy. “I’ve worked with Dr. Clancy since my freshman year studying crab larvae, plankton, and snails from Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island salt marshes,” said Knee. “We have a great working relationship.” Following her graduation in May 2002, Knee plans to attend graduate school and eventually earn her doctorate with a focus on marine invertebrates. “I have a lot of schooling ahead of me. I would like to be a professor so that I can teach while conducting research,” said Knee. “I am greatly interested in the deep sea because there are so many species to be discovered.” Knee’s research was sponsored by the URI Coastal Fellowship Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its fifth year, the Coastal Fellowship Program teams students with URI faculty, research staff and graduate students to help undergraduates gain skills that will ensure their future success. Photos available upon request. For information: Todd McLeish 401-874-7892, Keith Marshall 401-874-2116