Professor Mark Bertness' Revolutionary Salt Marsh Discoveries
Robert P. Brown Professor of Biology; Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“I’ve been at Brown for 31 years. And what’s happened in my lab in the last five-to-seven years has been transformative. We’ve gone from being a conceptually focused lab that studies the organization of marine communities—mostly intertidal communities—to a conservation focused lab; searching for common ground between ecological theory and conservation and management problems.
Who we are
“Ten years ago, my students would have called themselves marine ecologists. Now, they define themselves as marine conservation biologists. In fact, we’ve gotten to know marine intertidal systems so well that when The Nature Conservancy or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration need to know something about salt marshes or rocky shores, we’re the ones they come to. Recently, we’ve been doing climate change work and focusing on overfishing and how it is causing trophic disfunctionality of shoreline food webs. In particular, we’re seeing a direct link between overfishing and the collapse of salt marshes from Hudson Bay to Argentina.
The most valuable ecosystems in the world
“Salt marshes acre-by-acre have been calculated to be the most valuable ecosystems in the world in terms of services they provide humankind in terms of protecting shorelines from erosion, storms, and chemical filtration of runoff. Every salt marsh on the planet is managed and conserved as though it was governed by bottom-up forces: temperature, salinity, and nutrients. And yet, what our work all down the western Atlantic from Canada to South America is showing is that over-fishing and nutrient-loading is turning these systems to top-down (consumer) control. Here in New England, overfishing has removed enough predators that a little marsh crab—a nocturnal herbivore that nobody even knew was there—is destroying entire marshes, turning green landscapes to heaps of mud. It’s a very difficult paradigm shift for a lot of people to accept, because the paradigm and dogma are deeply entrenched. We’re quite a ways from implementing new management schemes, because we still have a lot of convincing to do.”
“Due to our very positive culture—and an amazing record of placing our undergraduates and graduates in peer institutions—our department has doubled in size. But it’s come at a high price: we’ve gone from severely space-starved to outrageously space-starved. The addition of the Hunter Lab space—once renovated—will help alleviate a lot of that.”
See Professor Bertness' work in a video produced by Science Nation.