Grant Brings Upgrades to Benthic Ecology Research Facility at BIOS

A grant from the National Science Foundation will bring a series of improvements to the outdoor mesocosm facility over the coming year. Under the supervision of associate scientist Yvonne Sawall (left) and associate scientist & assistant director of university programs Samantha de Putron, the facility is set to be transformed into the Bermuda Marine Mesocosm Facility—a larger, more flexible outdoor space in which scientists can perform a wide range of research on the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Sawall shows living coral specimens to a group of students from The Berkeley Institute during a field trip funded by the BIOS Curriculum Enrichment Program.

A recently awarded grant from the National Science Foundation is set to bring a variety of improvements to the existing outdoor mesocosm facility at BIOS. Originally constructed in 2018 with funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation, International, the mesocosm facility is essentially a large outdoor aquarium comprising four large tanks (400 gallon, or 1,500 liter) and eight small tanks (130 gallon, or 500 liter) housed under a removable canopy. The tanks are located adjacent to a small laboratory trailer, which is used as a staging area and for sample processing.

A key component of the mesocosm is its “flow-through” system that draws seawater from the adjacent ocean through a filtration system and into a large storage reservoir that continuously supplies each of the tanks with fresh seawater.

“Mesocosms are important tools for the study of how environmental changes affect organisms, such as coral and other invertebrates, as well as community structure and ecosystem function,” said Yvonne Sawall, a benthic ecologist at BIOS. “They help us make more realistic predictions than laboratory-based experiments by mimicking natural conditions, and we can use mesocosms to conduct longer-term investigations that involve the manipulation of multiple variables, such as temperature, light, nutrient availability, and pH.” 

Now, under the leadership of Sawall and marine biologist and ecologist Samantha de Putron, the mesocosm will be transformed into the Bermuda Marine Mesocosm Facility (BMMF), with a variety of improvements designed to meet the growing demand at BIOS for an outdoor facility in which scientists can perform research on the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems.

“The goal of the new facility is to be easy-to-handle, reliable, versatile, and meet the current technical and scientific standards for conducting a wide range of organism- and community-scale experiments,” de Putron said. “It will also provide opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborative research that greatly expand our current research capabilities, allowing BIOS to remain at the forefront of global change research.”

The BMMF will acquire four additional small tanks and add temperature control units, a carbon dioxide (CO2) supply system, and automated pH measurements to each tank, which will enable researchers to conduct heat wave, long-term warming, upwelling, cooling, ocean acidification, and other climate change experiments. These experiments constitute an important component of future BIOS studies on global change effects.

Flow meters that control the inflow of fresh seawater will also be added to all tanks, which allows them to meet the various demands of different experimental designs, including nutrient manipulation experiments. Other additions include adjustable bottom grates for fine-scale adjustments of depth and water volume; and lids with adjustable shading material for each basin to control the amount of light. Finally, a total of 60 small (5 gallon, or 20 liter) aquaria will be available for highly replicated, organism-based experiments, such as studies on reproduction where organism separation is required.

Other planned major improvement to the existing facility include the construction of a transparent waterproof roof and a floating dock adjacent to the mesocosm, which will provide direct access to the BMMF by boat. This allows for quick and easy delivery and pick-up of live organisms to and from the facility, reducing stress on the experimental organisms.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the BMMF will be its increased capacity to support students participating in BIOS’s summer and fall semester courses, as well as interns and graduate students who are mentored by BIOS scientists studying the effects of environmental change on marine organisms. In 2019 alone, 80% of the 51 undergraduate and graduate intern projects utilized current BIOS seawater experimental facilities. Just under half of those were able to use the existing mesocosm, resulting in the mesocosm being at maximum capacity due to current restrictions on its design and scope.

The new facility will also expand the experiential learning potential for student coursework and research in BIOS’s summer and fall semester courses.

“The most popular and highest credit course of our fall semester is the Independent Research course, where students design and implement their own research project,” said de Putron, who is also the assistant director of university programs at BIOS. “Many choose to work on ecophysiology studies of different invertebrates but, so far, mixed experimental designs for multiple students are not supported by our current facilities, which restricts the research questions the students can explore. The new facility will prove essential in eliminating these restrictions and allow the development of new research avenues and educational programs.”

The BMMF will also support BIOS’s local education initiatives, assisting the Institute in meeting increased student demand for practical training in global change research and experiential learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Sawall and de Putron will work with the BIOS Education Department to develop presentations and education modules that communicate the breadth of research being conducted at the BMMF, as well as the variety of technologies being utilized. The BMMF will support the placement of two to three BIOS Bermuda Program interns on an annual basis, allowing Bermudian students aged 18 and over the opportunity to conduct research projects alongside BIOS mentors within the new mesocosm facility. In addition, there will be 10 annual work shadow placements conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education.  

“A number of our faculty will be able to immediately use this facility to expand their current research programs and, beyond the BIOS community, we’ve already had multiple collaborators express interest utilizing the facility, including locally,” said Sawall. “The global change research that will be facilitated by the BMMF is critical to provide guidance to other scientists, policy stakeholders, governments, and the public on anticipated changes, impacts, and mitigation.”

Construction is anticipated to begin December 2021, with testing of the entire facility scheduled for June 2022. Advertisement of the BMMF will begin end of 2022.