CC&E’s Tracy Quirk to study saltmarshes with prestigious Whitman Fellowship

June 17, 2024

Dr. Tracy Quirk

Dr. Tracy Quirk of the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences

BATON ROUGE - The salt marshes making up much of Louisiana’s coastline are well-documented ecological powerhouses. Their counterparts around the world are no different - stabilizing coastlines, serving as wildlife habitat, filtering pollution, providing carbon sinks.

But even though these ecosystems pack an environmental punch well above their relatively small global footprint, salt marshes around the globe are in trouble.   

Tracy Quirk, an associate professor in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, or DOCS, will be working to better understand the complex interplay of factors behind salt marsh  decline after receiving a prestigious Whitman Fellowship from the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory, or MBL.  

Quirk is one of 29 scientists from 27 institutions to receive a Whitman Fellowship this year. All awardees are supported for up to ten weeks while they pursue research in developmental biology, microbial communities and marine organisms, global change and ecosystem ecology, or other topics. Quirk is the only selectee from an SEC institution. She will be traveling to Woods Hole, Massachusetts to conduct her research at the MBL.

"I am really excited for this new collaboration with esteemed scholars at MBL to work on a very unique long-term dataset of salt marsh response to environmental change,” Quirk said. “I will be using statistical approaches new to me to examine 50-years of vegetation community data, thereby broadening my toolbox for data analysis that will be useful for all future research. I also look forward to continuing my collaboration and work on the Great Sippewissett marsh long after the fellowship ends."

Quirk will be collaborating with Ivan Valiela and Javier Lloret, both MBL scientists, on part of an approximately fifty-year study of fertilization and climate influence in the Great Sippewissett Marsh. Over the past five decades, study investigators have been fertilizing parcels of coastal marsh and documenting changes in vegetation, species and biogeochemical features as sea levels rise.

Quirk and her team will be looking specifically at the interactions of and competition between marsh plants, in order to better understand how the ecologies of different parcels may change under varying levels of rising seas and excess nitrogen.

Quirk noted in her project proposal that the team’s hypothesis is that the increases in nitrogen will alter the species response to sea level rise, and that those responses will also vary by species and the way plants compete and interact. The team also predicts that these plant responses will create ecosystem level changes.

 Quirk and her fellow investigators hope the information they uncover will help coastal managers around the world better predict how marshes will respond to environmental changes.