I study how worms and other benthic organisms interact with their environments. Burrowing animals are ecologically important, both in trophic dynamics and as ecosystem engineers, dramatically altering their physical and chemical environments. My research focuses on the diverse morphologies and behaviors of burrowing animals, the biomechanics of burrowing in muds and sands, and the mechanical properties of sediments.
Because the opacity of sediments (mud and sand) limits direct observation, I use tools from engineering and physics to develop new methods and integrate theory, modeling and experiments. Marine muds behave elastically due to the gel-like organic material that fills spaces between the grains, and I have shown that worms extend burrows by fracturing this organic matrix. Sands are non-cohesive granular materials that differ mechanically from cohesive muds. Burrowers exhibit different behaviors based on body size and sediment properties. These differences have implications for species distributions and interactions.
Having just joined the DISL faculty this fall, I am looking forward to exploring burrowing fauna and their environments in Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. I am particularly interested in developing new methods to measure sediment properties and characterize habitats to address questions such as how benthic microalgae and bacteria alter sediments as habitats for larger organisms. Potential projects in my lab could include sub-lethal effects of hypoxia and pollutants (such as oil) on worm behaviors and sediment structure, interactions between bottom boundary layer flow and sediment structure or seagrass beds, and how burrowing behaviors mix sediments, resulting in bioturbation.