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Originally published: 2012-10-01 13:03:40
Last modified: 2012-10-01 13:03:40

Gonzales studying sea oats to help deal with beach erosion

by Susan King

In the mid-1990s, several hurricanes had so damaged portions of the N.C. coast that a person could walk from the north end of Wrightsville Beach to Figure Eight Island at low tide, and it looked like Shell Island Resort was going to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
 Erosion at Wrightsville Beach is not a recent phenomenon. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, the town built jetties to trap shifting sands as they moved from one end of the island to the other. 

For a while it worked. Years later, beach renourishment, sand bags and dredging would all be used in attempts to stabilize this fragile strip of land that conservationists say was never meant to become the foundation for a resort. 

Human attempts to maintain beaches without sand dunes by building sea walls and jetties are only a temporary deferment of nature's inevitable course in shaping our coastlines. 

Eva Gonzales, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Appalachian State University, is keen on developing a sustainable, systemic response to beach erosion. 

Supported by her expertise in landscape genetics, conservation and restoration ecology, Gonzales' current research, funded by North Carolina Sea Grant, includes a study of the DNA of sea oats, the principal native dune-forming vegetation along the southeastern North American coast. 

"I think of sea oats as the most graceful environmental engineers and sand dune builders," she said. "Coastal dunes with sea oats form the first line of defense against forces of storm surges, preventing intrusion of salt water into inland habitats and protecting both natural habitats and human real estate. Well-developed and stable dunes keep land from being washed away and allow other organisms to establish. Conversely, disregard for sand dune vegetation results in the loss and degradation of coastal habitat, with profound consequences for biodiversity, ecosystem stability and economic development."

There are two distinct populations of sea oats, or Uniola paniculata, indigenous to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Each is uniquely suited to its particular environment. 

The mangrove forests of Florida seem to create a natural barrier to pollen and seed mediated gene flow, except in one area, around Charleston, S.C., where, "they had planted everything," Gonzales said. 

An article in the April 2012 issue of Coastwatch Magazine reported that Gonzales plans to take advantage of the "mixed-up plantings" during beach restorations in the Charleston Harbor area to study whether sea oat seedlings are best raised from seeds gathered near the spot where they are to be transplanted. 

If the hypothesis that local plants grow better is correct, then she and her research team will find that the Gulf Coast type plants perform more poorly on the Atlantic Coast than native plants. 

"The experiment has already been planted," Gonzales said. 

Gonzales calls herself an "evolutionary biologist." She believes that an understanding of evolutionary history is essential to the development of thoughtful responses to global change -- an inevitable part of the relationship between human beings and planet Earth. 

Gonzales' teaching and scholarship are driven by a passion for connecting intellectual curiosity with research and applying the outcomes for the good of ecosystems and communities. 

She has applied this approach to designing restoration strategies of coastal sand dunes using native vegetation. 

"Through my research and cooperation with management agencies, coastal municipalities and sea oats growers, I would like to articulate to folks that evolutionary thinking is relevant to conservation biology and coastal management," she said.

"What I'd like to accomplish is integration of the work of science with those who actually implement the conservation work, thus bridging the gap between academia -- that may appear to some folks as abstract and distant - and communities," she said.

Gonzales' project has profound consequences for biodiversity, ecosystem stability and economic development. "Considering the importance of the 'ecosystem services' that sea oats provide for us free of charge, I would like for folks to understand and support the protection of sand dune vegetation, rather than seeing it as a restriction to their vacation activities or coastal development," Gonzales said.

To find out more about Gonzales' research and its implications for our state and beyond, visit http://www.appstate.edu/~gonzaleseb/ and http://www.news.appstate.edu/2012/04/19/advancing-sea-oat-biology-advancing-dunes/.