2023-24 Mathias Grants awarded

2023-24 Mathias Grants awarded
With a 2023–24 Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant from the NRS, UC Davis graduate student Shreya Banerjee is using ecological genomics to study how ribbed limpets are adapting to climate change. She is sampling limpets at West Coast sites such as the NRS’s Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve, shown here. Image: Shreya Banerjee

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

In the turbulent waters of California’s tidepools, the winner of the “looks most likely to survive” category would surely be the limpet. With a volcano-shaped shell clamped tight to rocks or barnacles by a muscular foot, these marine snails appear ready to withstand both hell and high water.

As it happens, limpets are facing both of late due to climate change. And the state’s two species of ribbed limpets have responded accordingly. Where the ranges of Lottia digitalis and Lottia austrodigitalis overlapped between Point Conception and Monterey Bay in 1978, both could be found as far north as Bodega Bay by 2007.

“That was really exciting to me, because it suggests that both range shifts and adaptation to new temperatures may be occurring to adapt to recent climatic effects,” says Shreya Banerjee, a PhD student in the Population Biology Graduate Group at UC Davis. She hopes to study both processes simultaneously using ecological genomics. “I hope to tease apart which of these mechanisms are active, and to what extent ribbed limpets are coping with ongoing climatic change,” she says.

2023-24 Mathias Grants awarded
Ribbed limpets with the distinctive ridges that give these marine snails their common name. Image: Shreya Banerjee

This year, Banerjee is among the 16 graduate students from eight UC campuses who received a 2023–24 Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant to support their field work at NRS reserves. With assistance from the grant, Banerjee plans to obtain both genetic and environmental data on ribbed limpets from Baja California north to Oregon, including at the NRS’s Scripps Coastal, Norris Rancho Marino, and Bodega Marine reserves.

At each site, she’ll snip a tiny bit of tissue from 15 limpets. She’ll also epoxy temperature probes bearing a remarkable resemblance to her subjects near the sampled organisms. Called robo-limpets, the devices can track the fine temperature fluctuations Banerjee’s sample snails experience as they bake in the sun or get submerged by waves.

In the laboratory, Banerjee will sequence the genomes of both her limpets and those sampled back in 2008 at 18 of the same field locations. The genetic data will help her to identify these visually identical limpets to species, and whether their geographic ranges have shifted in the intervening 15 years.

2023-24 Mathias Grants awarded
Ribbed limpets that prefer to settle on barnacle colonies may resemble the shape and coloration of their barnacle hosts. Image: Shreya Banerjee

She’ll then determine whether certain gene variations, or alleles, pop up more often in limpets living within certain temperature ranges. The analysis will reveal the magnitude of genetic change that has occurred over time. Banerjee will be the first to road test predictions from this new method, called genetic offset analysis, with paired historical and current samples.

If the genetic offset technique proves valid, Banerjee says, it could become a powerful new tool for identifying organisms imperiled by climate change. “Being able to tell when a population has the capacity to adapt or not, or when it needs to move and help, is important. It could help answer whether you can just protect the center of a population range and hope that that has the adaptive variation necessary to cope, or whether you should prioritize range edges because they’re more likely to move.”

Mathias grant recipients like Banerjee will receive up to $3,000 toward defraying the costs of transportation, research equipment, and accommodations at one or more of the NRS’s 41 reserves. Projects this year will involve 18 different NRS reserves.

2023-24 Mathias Grants awarded
Banerjee glues a robo-limpet to rocks near some of her sample limpets. Image: Shreya Banerjee

The majority of grant recipients will pursue questions in ecology. Three students are researching bees, on topics ranging from conservation to life cycle timing over a range of elevations. Three other students will focus on fishes, including the effects of introduced species and the life histories of native steelhead. California’s widespread oak woodlands are the subject of three more studies, involving fungal ecology and water use. The theme of climate change also runs through many projects, from Banerjee’s limpet work to an investigation of small mammal communities.

Mathias grant funding may be modest, but students say the program is indispensable for early-career researchers. The experience of applying for and managing a grant, then reporting results to funders, gives these scientists the chance to develop skills they will use throughout their careers.

The Mathias program also encourages scientists to establish research programs in the reserve system. The requirement adds to the body of knowledge about reserve environments, while paying dividends to students and the reserve system. Banerjee, for example, says Bodega Marine Reserve staff provided a wealth of assistance as she prepared to launch her study.

2023-24 Mathias Grants awarded
A robo-limpet that Banerjee has glued to a rock near her sample limpets. The device will track subtle shifts in temperature experienced by the shellfish living at this location. Image: Shreya Banerjee

“Being able to go out to the reserve with Jackie Sones, the Bodega Marine Reserve research coordinator, to get trained on identifying limpets was invaluable to me. There’s just no way I could have learned half as well on my own. Jackie and Suzanne Olyarnik, the Bodega Marine Reserve director,have been so helpful with navigating the California permitting system.

The $38,000 in Mathias Grant funding awarded this year comes from the Kenneth S. Norris Endowment Fund for the California Environment, provided to the NRS by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since its establishment in 1988, the Mathias Grant program has awarded $1,058,439 to 545 students. A table of all Mathias grant recipients and their projects to date is available on the NRS website.

The grant program honors one of the founders of the NRS. A professor of botany at UC Los Angeles, Mildred E. Mathias served as chair of the NRS’s advisory body during the reserve system’s formative decades.

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