LSU students participate in marine research in Mozambique
Nine LSU students journeyed to Mozambique in May to conduct marine research in the
small coastal village of Praia do Tofo, and in their month-long
LSU at Praia do Tofo, Mozambique. From left, Reagan Errera, assistant professor, and
students Kathleen Rodick, Sydney Cottingham, Zach Stratton, Bryce Loschen, Olivia
Lewis, Scott Graham, Courtney Murr, William Jackson, Katy Murry. The students participated
in a Coastal African Field Studies class from May 8 – June 4. Photo provided by Reagan Errera
stay had encounters with whale sharks that one student described as almost spiritual.
“I was swimming eye to eye with it,” said Sydney Cottingham, a senior from Bowling
Green, Kentucky studying natural resource ecology and management in the LSU College
of Agriculture. “It was breathtaking and humbling to be so close to something that
Reagan Errera, assistant professor in the college’s School of Renewable Natural Resources
led the field studies class. The group collaborated with researchers with All Out
Africa, a non-profit organization that implements social and conservation projects.
Errera is working with All Out Africa to conduct research on various species of phytoplankton,
the microscopic plants of the ocean, in the area. Her main research focuses on identifying
seasonal trends and spatial extent of the neurotoxin, domoic acid.
By identifying seasonal trends, she hopes to determine if human and wildlife health
might be at risk. She said shellfish and fish can accumulate domoic acid, leading
to amnesiac shellfish poisoning.
Many tourists go to Tofo to see abundant marine life in the area such as whale sharks
and large manta rays.
“Tofo has the largest known population of male juvenile whale sharks,” Errera said.
Whale shark sightings have been declining over the past decade, and she is evaluating
weather pulses and changes in the phytoplankton community could be contributing to
The course, Coastal African Field Studies, focuses on underwater field techniques
and research study design.
Each student completed their own research study. “They all came up with a hypothesis,
were taught standardized techniques, and executed data collection and analysis over
the three and half week course,” Errera said.
Cottingham was studying plastics at the bottom of reefs. She said she spent a lot
of time sifting and baking sand with the goal of seeing how humans are affecting the
reef. Another student, William Jackson, a recent graduate from LSU College of Coast
and the Environment, studied plastic found on the beaches.
“Even when you are studying animals, you can’t get away from the human side of it,”
Bryce Loschen, a senior also studying natural resource ecology from Colorado Springs,
Colorado, analyzed GPS data collected over several years of sightings of megafauna
such as whale sharks and manta rays. He also looked GPS data and dates of fishing
“We wanted to see if fishing nets were a danger to whale sharks or manta rays. Are
the sharks encountering the nets?” Loschen said.
The students said they regularly encountered a whale shark they nicknamed Rodney who
was missing his dorsal fin. Errera said it’s possible the shark lost its fin after
being tangled in a net. In conjunction with the course, most of the students received
dive certification while in Tofo.
Courtney Murr, a senior from Denham Springs also in natural resource ecology and management,
said she spent an hour in the water with Rodney. “It was amazing,” she said.
Murr studied fish diversity and conducted sea urchin counts on reefs. Other students
looked at reef health, marine diversity and dolphin behavior.
Cottingham said the experience helped her with science problem-solving skills. “The
structure and theories are the same, but we had to adjust for the tools we had.”
The students ended the trip with an excursion to Kruger National Park in South Africa,
where they observed a wide variety of savannah wildlife species including elephants,
giraffes, cheetah, lions and a suite of antelope species.