Student Research Highlight

By Nakayla Lestina

What question(s) does your research address? 

My research project investigated how habitat structure and topographic complexity influences fish and invertebrate species diversity and abundance. The project also explored how the cover of algae communities influenced habitat structure and topographic complexity. It is important to understand the relationship among habitat structure, topographic complexity, fish, and invertebrate communities because of the influences these have on coral reef ecosystems.

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Was it difficult to devise a research question?

This was my first time researching anything in the marine environment because my background is in terrestrial ecology. So, before arriving in Bonaire, I began looking into what I would like to research during my time on the island. While reading literature, I was very intrigued by the connectivity and functions of seagrass meadows, mangroves, and coral reefs. But, given feasibility, I was not able to explore this interest so I had to go back to the drawing board. It was difficult finding something else to research because I find many things about the marine environment fascinating. I eventually found a topic that I was interested in after talking with multiple people.

Was it difficult to devise the methods for your research question?

Devising the methods for my project was not difficult; however, developing dive plans presented some trials. Through my research, I was collecting a variety of data and I did not know how long it would take to collect everything. So, during my first dive, I did a test run of all my methods to get a feel for how long each would take me. This helped in developing dive plans for the rest of my research.

Describe a typical day of data collection for your research project.

Data collection varied during the course of my research project because I was looking at a lot of different factors. The first few dives I was measuring the rugosity of the mooring blocks, taking photos to analyze benthic community composition, and identifying fish and invertebrate communities. After rugosity measurements and photos were completed, I continued identifying and recording the abundance of fish and invertebrate species both during the day and night.

What major difficulties did you have to overcome to complete your project?

The only difficulties I had to overcome were making sure I had proper time management. Since I had so much data to collect, I had to plan carefully so I could get all the data while not running low on air. Every time I changed the tasks for my research dives, the first dives were a little nerve wracking, but I always planned for extra time.

What was the most fun part of your research project?

Hands down, the best part about my research project was getting in the water twice a week to collect data. Who can complain about going diving multiple times a week? Even though I was doing work during these dives, it did not feel like work. The time always flew by so fast and did not seem like my research partner and I were underwater for about an hour and a half ever dive. There was always something new to see while diving.

Describe the general findings of your research project.

The mooring blocks that I used as my study sites were all similar to each other, so I had to reject all my hypotheses. However, I found that habitat structure and topographic complexity influenced fish and invertebrate species diversity. It was also revealed that the time of day impacted species diversity. I found that invertebrate species diversity was highest during the night whereas fish species diversity was highest during the day.

Different benthic communities influenced habitat structure and topographic complexity. There was no evidence supporting that algae cover influenced the habitat structure and topographic complexity of the mooring blocks. However, there was support that live coral cover influenced the structure and complexity. Even though my hypotheses were not supported, the findings from this project provided insight on coral reef ecosystems.

Has the process of conducting an independent research project made you a better scientist?

Having the opportunity to conduct my own independent research project has definitely made me a better scientist. In the past, I have conducted other research projects but they were usually laid out already. So, having the opportunity to write a proposal, develop the project, write up and present the findings has taught me that there is a lot of hard work involved in scientific research.

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