FGCU Marine Ecology Course Visit

If you have been to Keys Marine Laboratory before, there’s a pretty good chance that you have run in Dr. James Douglass, an Associate Professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School. Douglass has been brining students of his Marine Ecology (OCB4633) course to KML every fall and spring semester since 2012. The course itself is required for students in FGCU’s B.S. Marine Science program as it provided key insights into the biological dynamics of marine populations, communities, and ecosystems. By taking students to KML, Douglass is able to showcase the complex and beautiful reef environments of the Florida Keys while simultaneously emphasizing the value and vulnerability of marine ecosystem in a way that goes beyond what any student could learn from lectures and or readings alone. We caught up with Professor Douglass as well as one of his students from the course’s most recent visit, Ryon Anderson, to hear a bit more about their overall experience.

JD: I know that part of your course involves a visit down here to KML but what do students learn before heading down to the Keys?

James: The purpose of the course is to help students understand the structure and functioning of the living environment of the oceans, including how ocean ecosystems respond to human activities such as pollution and overfishing. We address all kinds of marine ecosystems, from estuaries to the deep sea, but our field trip to KML is particularly helpful for teaching about coral reef, seagrass, and mangrove ecosystems.

JD: I’ve run a few of your trips (one of which was actually my first ever boat trip with KML) but for those who don’t know, how exactly are your field trips integrated into KML?

James: We use KML’s facilities as a base for accessing different environments to explore by snorkeling, always with the goal of seeing and identifying as many species as possible in each environment. After each snorkeling outing, we reconvene in the dry lab to compile a list of our species sightings and practice our species identification skills using guidebooks and laptop computers. Typically, our first snorkeling outing is in seagrass beds in KML cove, where were do algae collections for identification in the dry lab. The dissecting microscopes there are helpful for tricky algae IDs. Later in the day we snorkel in Zane Gray Creek to learn about mangroves and prop root fouling communities. Weather providing, day two of our two-day visits is riding out on a boat to explore reef environments. Some of our favorite spots are the shallow coral rubble and seagrass environment at Old Dan Bank, the inshore patch reef at Cheeca Rocks Special Protected Area, and the barrier/bank reef at Alligator Reef Special Protected Area.


JD: There’s definitely a lot that goes on while you are on-site but if you had to choose, what was your favorite thing from your recent visit?

Ryon: I would have to say getting the chance to learn how to identify different Florida Keys species by their scientific names and how these species functioned within the ecosystem. During our collections I happened to find some smaller organisms such as amphipods and a spaghetti worm decided to hitch a ride on the algae we collected! Later in the trip we went snorkeling offshore and within these ecosystems, we were able to come across many different organisms ranging from beaded anemones, scrawled cowfish, and a flame box crab. All of which were very great finds and stunning to see in person!

JD: Same question for you James!

James: It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing as there’s always something wonderful about every one of our KML trips. Even if we have to adapt where we snorkel because of rough weather and murky water, we always seem to find unique environments and beautiful and charismatic organisms I’ve never seen before.

JD: Do you have any upcoming updates to the course or any plans to come back to KML soon?

James: I’m currently working on the forms for my next Marine Ecology class trip to KML and looking forward to incorporating SCUBA diving activities for the first time, for students who are AAUS certified through FGCU’s growing scientific diving program. SCUBA will let us take a closer look at the biodiversity and health status of some of the deeper reef environments of the middle keys.

JD: Any tips for students who are set to take Professor Douglass’s course?

Ryon: I definitely have a few! Cameras and GoPros are a perfect for this trip if you want to document and post all the species you find! When we were taking a break in between each session, there were times where we got to socialize with one another – take advantage of these times as they made a great opportunity for us to learn more about each other outside of the classroom. Be sure to hang out by the docks to potentially catch sight of different organisms such as sea slugs, upside-down jellyfish, manatees and maybe even Dr. Douglass wind surfing in the distance. Oh, and carpool with some of your classmates to save on gas!