St. Joseph Bay is far more than just a beautiful photo op.
Research assistant Robyn Zerebecki currently calls the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve Center home, at least she will through August. The Ontario, Canada native has spent the past three summers at the facility conducting six-month long experiments in the salt marshes as she learns more about the Spartina plant, commonly known as cord-grass.
Zerebecki, who received her Master’s degree in Marine Biology from Northeastern University in Boston, is currently in pursuit of a doctorate in zoology from the University of British Columbia where she specializes in marine ecology.
“I’ve always wanted to be a marine biologist,” said Zerebecki. “It’s the perfect split of being outside and being in a lab.”
In addition to Gulf County, Zerebecki has also conducted experiments in Vancouver, Boston and Bodega Bay in California.
“This is a great place to look at the relationships in genetic diversity in dominant plants,” said Zerebecki.
She said that while many of these experiments take place in the salt marshes of New England, a southern location provides similar data and is accessible year round.
Zerebecki is focused on two projects this summer, the first of which looks at the interaction between different species of the Spartina plant and snails.
To do this, she planted Spartina in the marsh and visits it regularly to collect observational data.
Her goal is to figure out which species of the plant may be more nutritional to snails while also attempting to learn why the Spartina tends to grow higher when near Juncus plants, also known as needle rush.
The two plants are natural competitors and Zerebecki hopes to find out if snails are making the difference.
Snails often feed on the Spartina plants and there’s the possibility that the Juncus keeps the critters away. Of course, there’s also the possibility that snails leave some of the plants higher so that they can climb them to escape predators or the tide.
For the second project, Zerebecki planted Spartina at 20 sites of differing tidal heights to test nutrient availability. She adds a different nutrient each month and takes samples to see how they are affected by the nitrogen in the air.
Her goal is to see if one plant genotype may become rare or disappear completely in specific areas.
While Zerebecki doesn’t believe she’ll crack the case on this trip, she said that her research could eventually be used to help save the wetlands, which are currently eroding. She said that if one genetic version of Spartina is more resilient to animals and nature, it could have much larger ramifications.
“It becomes important to think about how to restore the marshes,” said Zerebecki. “The plants can help us identify runoff issues and learn more about the colonization of invertebrates and insects.”
Since she stays at the Buffer Preserve Center while conducting research, Zerebecki literally lives with her work. She only has a finite amount of time to do as much research as possible and when dealing with something like plants, they tend to keep their own schedule.
“Summer field research is a 24/7 thing,” said Zerebecki. “I think it’s better to live on-site than commute. It helps you get more done.
“It’s hard when you know you have four months somewhere and you’re only one person.”
As interesting as the experiments are for Zerebecki, she said that aside from having a prime area where she can study, Gulf County as a whole is a great place to spend six months out of her year.
Zerebecki said that in her limited free time she enjoys spending time at the Indian Pass Raw Bar and the beach. Her goal this year is to take up paddle boarding.
“I love it here. I like this area and the people are very nice,” said Zerebecki. “It’s kind of like having a family away from my family.”