Eric Massa wants to know if Everglades restoration is working.
The FIU student is turning to periphyton – spongy, soggy mats of algae, bacteria, fungi and microbes floating in freshwater – to determine if projects intended to protect and restore water resources are meeting Everglades nutrient standards. Most of the Florida Everglades has low nutrient levels under natural conditions. But, agriculture, development and water restoration activities have caused phosphorus levels to skyrocket. Massa is evaluating phosphorus levels in the Everglades and predicting periphyton collapse, allowing resource managers to evaluate restoration success.
“If water quality improvement efforts can be better targeted for locations that are at risk of periphyton mat collapse, then restoration funds can be spent more efficiently,” said Massa, a master’s student in the Department of Biological Sciences.
Periphyton is a great indicator of ecosystem health. It can absorb contaminants and remove them from the environment. It is also home to small creatures, including insects and worms, and a source of food for fish, invertebrates and tadpoles. Extensive and cohesive periphyton mats are indicative of a healthy environment. But too much phosphorus can cause periphyton mats to collapse, causing a cascade of changes at the base of the food web.
Massa is conducting the research under the guidance of Evelyn Gaiser, aquatic ecologist in FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment. It is funded in part by the Everglades Foundation’s FIU ForEverglades Scholarship.