URI student assesses factors affecting mussel beds

Media Contact: Todd McLeish 874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. — November 19, 2002 — University of Rhode Island junior George Kamajian spent last summer studying mussel beds, but what he really wants to do is replace Steve Irwin.

“I want to replace the crocodile hunter. I mean, at some point, he’ll finally be eaten by something, the way he keeps attacking dangerous animals. That’s when I’ll step in and replace him,” said the Warwick resident.

For those who know Kamajian, the dream job comes as no surprise. The marine biology major, who also wants to attend medical school, has never considered studying anything else.
“Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a marine biologist. The career has always fascinated me,” said Kamajian.

This past summer, Kamajian spent 20 hours a week studying intertidal mussels off Black Point and Bass Rock in Narragansett as part of the URI Coastal Fellows Program. Intertidal mussels live in a region between the high and low tide marks.

At high tide, Kamajian snorkeled the area looking for predators like starfish and cunner fish and at low tide he used a digital camera to study how the abundance of mussels changes over the seasons.

“We realized that because of the harsh environment, the mussels don’t have to worry so much about predators. Big predators will get hit hard by the waves, and anything small is too small to do any significant damage. The bigger factors killing the mussels are the heat and waves,” said Kamajian, who was surprised by how sensitive the mussels were to the heat at low tide.

Kamajian said that only one group of mussels he studied had been growing in the shade. They were the only ones that did not sustain significant damage at low tide when direct sunlight shines on them.

“One would think that if they can take punishment like being bashed against rocks by waves all day and night, then they can take the heat for four or five hours, but they literally cooked inside their own shells,” said Kamajian.

His research was part of a larger project by URI professor of biological sciences Emily Carrington, who is studying the strength of the threads mussels use to attach themselves to rocks. With a multiyear grant funded by the National Science Foundation, Carrington is interested in studying how mussels will respond to long term shifts in wave climate that are associated with global warming.

“Most of my project was spent analyzing my field work in a lab. I always thought field work explained itself, but if you want any significant amount of data from it, a lot of time must be spent picking everything apart and putting it together the way you want,” said Kamajian, who analyzed over 400 digital images for the project.

His research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Rhode Island Sea Grant through the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its seventh year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with URI faculty, research staff and graduate students to help undergraduates gain skills that will ensure their future success.

“The Coastal Fellows Program is the best thing I’ve done in college so far,” said Kamajian, who is double majoring in marine biology and pre-med. “I think it’s the best thing URI has for undergraduates. It’s a great program to put on your resume and something interesting outside of the classroom.”