MS, Marine Biology, California State University, Fullerton
BS, Marine Biology, College of Charleston, South Carolina
Stephen Whitaker is an incoming Ph.D. student broadly interested in marine ecology, particularly rocky intertidal ecosystems and phycology (the study of algae). As a graduate student and a marine ecologist for the U.S. National Park Service at Channel Islands National Park, Stephen plans to investigate patterns and long-term trends in the abundance and distribution of foundation species on rocky shores, especially the causes of decline of the rockweed, Silvetia compressa. Rockweed is extremely important in rocky intertidal ecosystems, providing habitat and food for a diverse community. Monitoring data from the northern Channel Islands has documented surprising declines in rockweed cover on the islands, and the alga has completely disappeared at some sites. Concurrently, significant declines in Silvetia and other rockweed species have been detected throughout southern California. These declines may be linked to a shifting climate regime, with increased frequency of extreme Santa Ana wind events, warming air temperature, and reduced coastal fog and cloud cover. Extreme mortality of embryos and germlings in the changing climate, exacerbated due to lack of adult “nurse plants” that would otherwise create favorable microclimates, and the short-distance dispersal of the species may have inhibited recovery. To test these hypotheses, Stephen plans to use National Park Service data to examine factors including climate that affect the abundance of Silvetia over time. Relying on his extensive experience in rocky intertidal ecology, Stephen will also deploy experiments in the field to test mechanisms affecting rockweed survival and the potential for restoration of the species.