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Elasmobranch lab Q & A: Ajemian Lab

Lab: Fish Ecology and Conservation Lab

Institution: Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University; Fort Pierce, FL

PI: Dr. Matt Ajemian

Graduate Student: Grace Roskar


What is the central focus of your research group? Are there any big questions you’re guided by?

Our research interests focus on the ecology of sharks, rays, and bony fishes. We are studying movement ecology and habitat use of large predators, predator-prey interactions, foraging ecology, and fish ecology and biology in both natural and artificial habitats.


How did your lab begin?

Dr. Matt Ajemian came to Harbor Branch in January 2016 as the lead PI for the Fish Ecology and Conservation Lab. Soon after, Mike McCallister joined as the lab’s Research Coordinator.


What projects are graduate students working on?

We currently have three Master’s students in the lab.

I am working on characterizing the distribution and habitat use of elasmobranchs in the southern part of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon (IRL).  Using an fishery-independent survey (longlines, gill nets), I aim to assess how abiotic parameters may help predict the assemblage dynamics of elasmobranchs and estimate how major anthropogenic events (freshwater releases, harmful algal blooms, etc.) influence elasmobranch distribution in the southern IRL. I am also working on characterizing the culturable microbiome of IRL elasmobranchs and evaluate correlations between water quality and microbial assemblages.

Breanna DeGroot is studying the movement and habitat use of spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) throughout Florida, a species that has a demonstrated capacity to interact with bivalve restoration and commercial shellfish operations worldwide. Using passive and active acoustic telemetry, Breanna is examining residency in Sarasota Bay on the west coast and the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast as well as investigating patterns in long-distance movements. She also aims to improve understanding of how abiotic and anthropogenic factors influence movement of this species. 

Cameron Luck’s research focuses on analyzing the reproductive hormone progression in wild bonefish (Albula vulpes). Cameron collects blood and eggs from bonefish from several locations in the Bahamian archipelago to create a profile for reproductive development during and outside of the spawning season. By better understanding the reproductive processes of these fish, he will be able to better inform an ongoing captive breeding program currently being used as a potential restoration tool.


In which parts of the world do you conduct your research – are there specific species or habitats you focus on?

We are currently conducting research in various areas of the world. Our current projects focus on all elasmobranch species in the Indian River Lagoon, spotted eagle rays in the Indian River Lagoon and Sarasota Bay, and reef fish species (particularly those in the snapper grouper complex) on artificial reefs off St. Lucie County on Florida’s east coast. We are also collaborating with OCEARCH off the coast of Long Island, New York to assess potential juvenile white shark nursery areas. We also work in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas in collaboration with the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust to inform their captive breeding program for bonefish.


Do you involve undergraduates in your research – if so, how?

As part of Florida Atlantic University, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute hosts undergraduates from FAU’s main campus in Boca Raton for the “Semester by the Sea” program. While living and studying at Harbor Branch for the semester, undergraduates have interned in our lab to gain hands-on experience with various research methods.

Our lab also hosts summer interns through the Link Foundation, where undergraduates develop their own summer project over the course of ten weeks as well as help with other ongoing lab projects.


Has your group been involved in public outreach or science communication – if yes, what has been most successful?

Our lab has presented our work to various audiences as part of our outreach efforts, and we are always looking for more opportunities. For example, Dr. Ajemian has presented at Harbor Branch’s Ocean Science Lecture Series, which allows the public to learn about the research taking place at Harbor Branch. This fall I was able to present on my research to park visitors and a high school service group through the Speaker Series at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach. Additionally, Breanna spent the last semester working at Harbor Branch’s Ocean Discovery Visitor’s Center, where she provided tours and educated visitors about the local marine ecosystems and ongoing research efforts at the institute. She also educated young students on a weekly basis at the Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Lucie County about various topics in marine science, from marine mammals to ocean engineering to marine debris.


Is there anything else we should know?

Check out our website http://www.fisheco.org/!