Armed with rubber boots, collection jars and plenty of sunscreen, PBA students are spending their summer searching for a headcount of three different ecological types: Birds and fish, plankton and invertebrates, and sea grass and mangroves, in our local Intracoastal Waterway, just east of the West Palm Beach campus.
Dr. Thomas Chesnes and students Lory Gort, Isabelle George and Jessica DeHaven, have embarked upon an ecological study as a part of PBA’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program. To the north of Okeechobee bridge lies the South Cove area, and to the south lies the Chapel by the Lake.
But their study did not begin there. To find a baseline, the team traveled to John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach – a relatively untouched area which likely resembles what our own intracoastal area once was. “It establishes a baseline in light of which we can appraise the areas near campus,” stated Dr. Chesnes.
The study is currently ongoing, but two trends appear to be emerging. Preliminary results indicate that MacArthur Beach State Park has the most robust biodiversity of the three, a fact which is perhaps unsurprising given its lack of development and boat traffic. But noteworthy differences between the two areas close to campus appear to be revealing themselves. Although only separated by a bridge and a few hundred yards, it looks as if the South Cove area is significantly richer in its ecological offerings than the chapel by the lake area.
This then begs what is perhaps the most important of scientific questions: Why?
“I think we’ll eventually head-up to MacArthur again,” Dr. Chesnes said. Although that park is untouched by comparison to the waterway near campus, it has not been totally without development. As students, community members and tourists know, access to MacArthur Park’s beach is via a long wooden boardwalk which spans the length of that waterway, stretching from the barrier island to the parking lot. Dr. Chesnes aims to study whether the addition of a simple walkway across that body of water can also create differences in ecological features.
But for now, Dr. Chesnes and his team of students remain close to home in order to complete their work, and can be seen from campus braving the tropical waters in the name of science.