Lamar biologists analyze the coastal impact of the devastating hurricane.
When Hurricane Ike made landfall on the upper Texas Gulf Coast Sept. 13, 2008, it flooded southern Jefferson County near Sabine Pass with a storm-tide surge of more than 14 feet. People and animals caught in its path drowned. Houses, businesses and land washed away. When the water finally receded, much of the wildlife and vegetation that was left did not survive because the soil was soaked with salt.
A team of Lamar University biologists is analyzing the impact of the tidal-storm surge on the marsh communities. The research project titled “The Recovery of the Coastal Ecosystem of Southern Jefferson County, Texas, from the Storm Surge of Hurricane Ike” is funded by the Texas General Land Office’s Coastal Management Program with matching funds from Lamar University. The project total is $147,640. Paul Nicoletto, professor of biology, is the principal investigator, and the team includes Matthew Hoch, associate professor and chair; Michael Haiduk, professor; and Jim Armacost, assistant professor.
The biologists are examining the recovery of microbial, plant, amphibian, reptilian, mammalian and avian communities from the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area and McFaddin and Texas Point National Wildlife Refuges along the coast. Specific objectives include examining which species of microbe, plant, amphibian, reptile, bird, and mammal survived the storm surge and their population sizes; determining if new or invasive species have become established; determining if any invasive species previously present have been eradicated by the storm surge; examining the rate at which those groups of species re-invade and their recovery rates in the inundated habitats; examining soil chemistry and salinity effects on the microbial community and soil-micro-plant interactions; and examining changes in species diversity, richness and composition in areas being researched.
Team members are still collecting data so no conclusions have been drawn yet as to the coast’s recovery. But Nicoletto has an opinion based on his observations. “My impression is that it is recovering, but slowly,” he said. The plant communities are recovering rapidly, he explained, with the exception of many of the tree species. “The bird community is recovering more rapidly than the mammals, reptiles, or amphibians, probably due to their mobility and being able to escape the storm in the first place,” he said. The mammal populations seem to be expanding but the diversity is limited. The reptile and amphibian populations were hit the hardest. Most of the species that were present before the storm are moving back in but the population sizes are very small. Some species such as the six-lined racerunner lizard and the glass lizard are gone and may never return. The more aquatic species such as cottonmouth snakes and water snakes are recovering more quickly, but even they are still sparse. The frogs and other amphibians have the lowest population sizes because amphibians have very thin skins and dehydrate rapidly in saline conditions.
“We are beginning to see a few at the trapping localities on McFaddin, but they are very, very rare,” Nicoletto said.
After all the data are collected and analyzed, Nicoletto and the team will have a better understanding of the coastal ecosystem’s recovery. The biologist is sure about one thing though. “The recovery of the marsh and its fauna will take many more years,” he said.