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Ecology research important to coastal sustainability

What happens to smooth cordgrass when there’s an explosion in numbers of salt marsh periwinkle snails?

And why is the abundance of cordgrass important to communities along the East Coast?

alt“The well being of our salt marshes is vital to the sustainability of our local estuary ecosystem and our quality of life,” said Biology Professor Danny Gustafson.

Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) is the lifeblood of the salt marsh.  And salt marshes play a vital role in the sustainability of coastal communities, acting as buffers during heavy storms, filtering pollutants in runoff water and providing a nursery for marine animals like shrimp, sea trout, flounder and red drum.

The research conducted by Gustafson and fellow Biology Professor Joel Gramling along with several students is important to estuary management.  Diamondback terrapin and blue crabs, which feed on the snails, are a popular catch for commercial fisherman and recreational enthusiasts.  When they’re overfished or their populations are reduced, the salt marsh periwinkle snail population spirals out of control and negatively affects the grass. 

Exclusion snail cages that keep snails from the grass were set up by Gustafson and his team to conduct the research in several different areas of marsh, including right here at The Citadel.  Cadets Alex Anderson and Steven Urgelles conducted much of the field work during this six-month experiment by checking the sites every two weeks and recording data. 

The research concluded in November 2010 and the findings were analyzed.  The results were clear—smooth cordgrass is negatively impacted by an over abundance of salt marsh periwinkle snails.

Gustafson uses this ecological research as a teaching tool in his classes.

“We go out and survey snails and plants to measure snail damage in our marshes on campus, linking research with education,” said Gustafson.