I am interested in how worms and other benthic organisms interact with their environments. Burrowing animals are numerically abundant and ecologically important, both in trophic dynamics and as ecosystem engineers, dramatically altering their physical and chemical environments. Because the opacity of sediments (muds and sands) limits direct observation, I use tools from engineering and physics to develop new methods in order to integrate theory and experiments. Muds behave elastically due to the gel-like organic material that fills spaces between the grains, and I have shown that worms extend burrows by fracturing this organic matrix. Sands are granular materials with very different mechanical responses to burrowers than muds. Even within muds, burrowers exhibit different behaviors based on body size and sediment properties. My research therefore focuses on the mechanical properties of sediments as well as the diverse morphologies and behaviors of burrowing animals.
I joined the faculty at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in the fall of 2013 and am enjoying exploring burrowing fauna and their environments in Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. I am particularly interested in how benthic microalgae and bacteria alter sediment habitats for larger organisms and in developing new methods to measure sediment properties on the small scales of burrowing animals. Potential projects in my lab could include sub-lethal effects of hypoxia and pollutants (such as oil) on worm behaviors and sediment structure, interactions between bottom boundary layer flow and sediment structure or seagrass beds, and how burrowing behaviors mix sediments, resulting in bioturbation.