This summer I had the privilege of conducting my own research project on St. Catherines Island, a barrier island in Georgia, and in the estuary and marsh surrounding the island. St. Catherines is a 2×12 mile stretch of everything from salt marshes to subtropical rainforests and even abandoned agricultural fields. The island actually used to be owned by Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia, and his plantation house is still lived in today, though there are numerous ghost stories surrounding the property. During my summer on the island, I lived in one of the dozen or so ghastly, refurbished slave cabins that dot the island. It really was a spectacular place to live and study.
My research focused on finding ways to predict where oysters will do the best in the wild. For those of you who don’t know a whole lot about oysters, this comes down mostly to recruitment. Not like the recruitment that we all do every semester, but it’s actually part of the life cycle of oysters. They spawn sperm and eggs into the water column, which eventually become microscopic juvenile oysters called spat . These spat float around in the water for a couple weeks, ebbing and flowing as the tides of the marsh come and go. They then have to anchor themselves somewhere so that they can grow into adults, and they do this by cementing themselves to adult oysters using chemical cues released into the water by the adults. I wish fraternity recruitment was that easy!
As you all can probably imagine, these spat are for the most part at the mercy of the tides. When you are less than the size of a needle point, it’s pretty hard to move through water that’s going sometimes upward of 10 miles per hour. Therefore, my study focused on the physical factors affecting the water in the estuary, namely current velocity and wave energy. I thought that in areas where the water was moving quickly, there would be a greater chance of the spat to float past that point on any given day, so those points would have the highest recruitment. Likewise, I figured that areas where there was low wave energy would also have high recruitment.
I picked out 60 sites in the marsh surrounding the island, and at each spot I put a device called a spat stick (Pictured to the left), which measured the recruitment of the oysters, and a sensor rig, which was a floating platform with sensors to measure the current and waves. Field work in the marsh was a blast, but one of the most physically difficult things I’ve ever done. Every step you take you sink down below your waist in mud, so you really have to run as quickly aspossible and pick up your knees as high as you can—much like an intense football practice—or else you will inevitably sink. And you will look something like this:
That’s all the way up almost to my shoulders. It’s black, slimy mud that smells like rotten eggs. All in the name of science.
During downtime on the island, I explored the huge swaths of dense forest in a small ATV, going between the beach, which was completely empty of other people (seen above just before a storm), and to see the several historical and archaeological sites on the island. St. Catherines was the sight of the first Christian church in the state of Georgia, as it was the site of a Catholic mission, Mission Santa Catalina de Guale. This was named after the Guale native Americans who inhabited the island. The mission eventually fell in a fire, but the clay walls were baked in the heat, preserving them for centuries. In the early 2000s, the walls and interior of the church were taken to the Fernbank museum in Atlanta to be preserved and put on display. Palm trees were planted at the spots where the pillars of the church stood, so the mission site is still technically a functioning Catholic church, officially ordained by a Parish in Savannah, Georgia. People have actually gotten married there, and services are held sporadically on Sundays.
The other major archaeological site is the “Fallen Tree”, where a tree fell, revealing dozens of burial mounds of the natives. Excavations at the site occur during the early summer of each year, and have revealed over 100 burial sites in the surrounding marsh. One particularly interesting find was obtained through DNA testing, which found that many of the individuals buried here were of some European descent, indicating a meshing of European and native cultures.
This is a picture of the Fallen Tree site at sunset:
Living on the island for an entire summer, I became well acquainted with many of the animals. The first that comes to mind is the Ring-tailed Lemurs, which were introduced to the island in the 80s by the Bronx Zoo to provide populations to zoos all across America. In the past, the Zoo Program cared for tons of different animals, like Wildebeest, Macaques, and Zebras, but they have since been moved elsewhere. Several mornings each month I got to go out with the animal handlers and feed the lemurs. It was breathtaking! The zoo program also cares for Great Hornbills, several Sandhill cranes, and a Wattled Crane named Icabad. He is one of the oldest of his kind, and has sired more young than any Wattled Crane currently alive. There is also a thriving sea turtle conservation program on the Island, so I got to assist in artificial hatchings and aid the baby sea turtles get to the ocean. Deer also live all over the island, and because the animals have the right of way and are protected from harm, the deer have no fear of humans and will eat right out of your hand!
This deer heard us talking and listening to music and came to investigate.
These are baby sea turtles that I released. They will return to the same beach from which they hatched one year from now, and each year for the rest of their life.
My time on the island is now over, but I’ll never forget my time there. Believe it or not, Chi Psi is one of the main reasons I got to have this experience. Besides the personal development, speaking skills, and goal setting lessons I learned in my time as a Pledge, the connections with my Brothers were the ultimate cause to push me into research. Several of the older Brothers encouraged me to go into labs with them when I was a Freshman, and it ultimately paid off, as I got a spot that culminated in my work this summer. It sounds cliché, but I would not have been able to accomplish what I have without Chi Psi.
John Lodge Coffin, Alpha Delta ’17