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Conference highlights river, coastal ecology

April 9, 2001

Arthur Nead

The Mississippi River, wetland ecology, fish, alligators and more were on the agenda of the 62nd annual meeting of the Association of Southeastern Biologists. Nearly 800 biologists of the association, mostly university and college faculty, researchers and graduate students, converged on New Orleans in early April to hear research results, check out offerings by publishers and suppliers, and sample unique ecological habitats in and around New Orleans.

The meeting was co-hosted by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Loyola's Department of Biological Sciences, explains Hank Bart, associate professor of biology and director and curator of fishes at the Tulane Museum of National History.

Bart served as local arrangements co-chair for the event. The Association of Southeastern Biologists is an umbrella organization bringing together the Southeastern divisions of a number of national biology societies, says Bart. Among these are the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, the Botanical Society of America, the Ecological Society of America and the Society of Wetland Scientists.

Most of the meeting's activities were at the Radisson Hotel in downtown New Orleans, with the exception of an online biology teaching demonstration at Loyola and field trips to ecological habitats in the New Orleans area.

"This is a big meeting," says Bart. "We've attracted as much interest as the previous two meetings in terms of the numbers of presentations."

Attendees presented some 300 biology research papers and displayed approximately 100 posters. A major concern of biology researchers was addressed by the keynote speaker, evolutionary biologist Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who spoke on "Global Biodiversity: Current Strategies for Saving It." Through its funding, the Tulane Liberal Arts and Sciences Center for Scholars was instrumental in bringing in this speaker. In addition to papers and posters, the conference featured several symposia.

During "The Lower Mississippi and Coastal Louisiana: Problems of the Past, Opportunities of the Future" symposium, researchers presented their findings on sediment and biological cycling of nutrients in the river.

"We have a big group here,both in ecology and evolutionary biology and also in geology,who are studying the sedimental geo-chemistry of the river, the bio-geochemical cycling of certain nutrients and also contaminants in the river," says Bart.

This research, he adds, focuses mostly on cycles of carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen. The symposium also addressed the problems of periodic low oxygen zones in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi River (so-called "dead zones") and the loss of coastal marshlands.

"A serious issue for all of us, especially here in New Orleans,is the effects that coastal marsh has on diminishing the impact of hurricanes," says Bart. If the current trends of marsh and land loss are not reversed, he says, "all of the marsh south of New Orleans, together with the barrier islands, will be gone."

That would expose the city to the full force of a hurricane coming from that direction. Another symposium with a distinctly Louisiana flavor concerned the status of collections of plant specimens, or herbaria, in Southeastern academic and research institutions. Tulane has a noted herbarium, with many specimens collected more than 150 years ago by the faculty of the institution that eventually became Tulane University.

"This symposium dealt with the future of herbaria," says Bart. "Institutions have moved away from the kind of taxonomic and natural history focus that herbaria collections really support. As the emphasis in these professions has shifted from the more specimen-oriented people to the people who work in laboratories, the financial support for herbaria and their positions has diminished."

The herbaria symposium highlighted that changing landscape, says Bart. "On one hand, it addressed the reduction in support they are receiving, and on the other hand it highlighted the critical importance of maintaining these botanical resources."

The conference was not all business. Two days into the meeting, the conventioneers put away their Palm Pilots and flocked to the "Stomp in the Swamp," a gala bash at the Audubon Zoo's swamp exhibit. There, rows of basking alligators lazily watched the throng of biologists enjoying Zydeco music on the deck overhanging their green pond.

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