Auburn University professor, former graduate student awarded NSF grant to study Hawaiian habitats


Auburn University Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences Scott Santos, left, and his former graduate student, Justin Havird, recently received a $90,055 award from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to study new habitats on the island of Hawaii. (Photo courtesy Auburn University)

AUBURN, Ala. (WRBL) – An Auburn University professor and a former graduate student received a two-year, $90,055 award from the National Science Foundation to study new habitats on the island of Hawaii.

Professor Scott Santos, Chair of Biological Sciences, and his former graduate student, Justin Havird, won the Rapid Response Research award from the NSF.

When Kilauea erupted in 2018, the lava that flowed from the eruption created new, unusual habitats on Hawaii, according to a university spokesperson.

Santos and Havird made a discovery last year while conducting field research near the eruption. Their studies of the new environment led to the grant award.

“This grant stems from an observation that we made late last year when we were doing some work near Hilo on the island of Hawaii,” said Havird, now an assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “We found these habitats that had been created during the 2018 Kīlauea eruption. When Kīlauea erupted, it destroyed many homes, but it also created a lot of new coastline. As the lava flowed, it cooled and created a lot of black, sandy beaches. When it did this, it apparently created some new habitats belonging to the anchialine ecosystem. To my knowledge, this is the first time that these habitats have been created in a natural process.”

Havird worked with Santos as he earned his doctorate in biological sciences at Auburn University from 2009 to 2014. He will serve as principal invetigator on the research project, while Santos will be the co-principal investigator. Their research is called “Micro- and macro-ecological succession in anchialine habitats during creation via volcanism.”

According to a university spokesperson, anchialine habitats are coastal water bodies that are not connected on the surface to the ocean, but are connected underground, both to the ocean and to the freshwater aquafer.

The research Santos and Havird will focus on through the grant will focus on how anchialine habitats are colonized by both microscopic organisms like bacteria and larger plants and animals.

“Now we can see what was happening immediately before the eruption, what was going on immediately after and also go back in time over 15 years,” Santos said. “I also have animals from that same area in culture here at Auburn since 2006. We’re going to see what might also have happened with those populations after the eruption compared to what’s in culture.”

Santos also says the work is important for the Department of Biological Sciences because it adds a new dimension to the research he’s been working on since 2004.

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