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What can we learn from seagrass' history?


Dr Oscar Serrano is a fortune teller. But instead of reading palms, he reads the history of human and climate impacts along the Australian coast using seagrass.

Dr Oscar Serrano
Dr Serrano inspecting a seagrass core sample. Pic: Gloria Salgado-Gispert.

He can look thousands of years into the past by examining the sand, shells and other material deposited on seagrass meadows.

That’s because seagrasses have been there for millennia and the sediment they collect over that time are like books explaining how our planet has changed – if you know how to read them.

He starts by driving two metre long pipes into the seabed to collect core samples. That material is taken back to the lab and run through a variety of different tests.

The chemical analysis of the material can reveal how coastal ecosystems have been affected over hundreds of years and how they can be protected in the future.

His research looks at how global issues such as coastal development and climate change are impacting seagrass in Australia.

The information Dr Serrano gathers can give authorities valuable information about the health of marine ecosystems now and in the past as well as the response of ecosystems to environmental changes and benefits of management activities.

Sampling seagrass cores underwater
Sampling seagrass cores underwater.

Seagrass is an important habitat for a wide variety of fish and other marine species. It also absorbs pollutants such as metals, herbicides and excess nutrients.

They also play an important role in combating global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate 40 times faster than tropical rainforests.

Dr Serrano will now take his research global thanks to an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant worth $370,000.

The ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award will allow him to look at local and regional impacts on coastal ecosystems and find out how they compare in different areas around the world.

His team will compare samples from Australia with others from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Spain, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Tunisia and the United States.

Dr Serrano collecting samples
Dr Serrano collecting samples near Busselton in the South West of Western Australia. Pic: Gloria Salgado-Gispert.

The wider scope of his research will allow Dr Serrano to find out if issues like climate change and coastal development affect the marine environment in the same way globally as they do in Australia.

He will also study locations affected by specific environmental issues which could benefit from reconstructing the past by looking back at the seagrass archives.

Visit the Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research website to find out more about marine science research at ECU.

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