Muddy Studies


During her 10-week REU—Research Experiences for Undergraduates, funded by the National Science Foundation—Olivia Butler ’21 studied how climate change is affecting a delicate balance in the northern Florida salt marsh ecosystem.

Olivia Butler ’21 is spending the summer studying the migration of black mangroves in northern Florida.
Olivia Butler ’21 has spent much of her summer in the mud, which is just what she’d hoped for when she applied for an REU—Research Experiences for Undergraduates—at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, FL. Butler, an environmental science major, spent 10 weeks conducting field research in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, helping understand how climate change is affecting the salt marsh ecosystem.

Specifically, Butler worked on a National Science Foundation-funded project called WETFEET (Warming Ecosystem Temperatures in a Florida Ecotone Experiencing Transition), trying to understand the effects of black mangrove migration that is being observed on the northeastern Florida coast.  

The effects of climate change are lessening the number of extreme cold snaps in winter that kill off black mangroves in their northern ranges. This is letting the mangroves migrate into salt marsh habitat, and scientists are trying to understand how that will change the salt marsh—a vital ecosystem that protects the coastline and sequesters enormous quantities of carbon.

Butler worked with a graduate student and mentor Nikki Dix, a research coordinator at the reserve, to examine the relationship between benthic microalgae—algae in the uppermost centimeters of the sediment—and the primary salt marsh vegetation of cordgrass, saltwort, and black mangrove.

“This is an important study because benthic microalgae are part of the foundation of the food webs here,” Butler says, “so if the amount or composition of it changes as these mangroves are moving into the salt marsh, then it is probable that the overall ecosystem will change as well.”

The majority of her work was in the field, taking sediment samples, then analyzing them in the lab. Ultimately the project’s research likely will be published, and Butler hopes that her participation will be recognized among its authors.

“It’s been challenging. I haven’t really had an opportunity to research at this level before, and it’s been a lot of troubleshooting,” she says. “I love being in the field, and I’m getting my hands dirty quite literally since I’m out in the marsh all day.”

As an REU, Butler’s internship is fully funded through the National Science Foundation. She says she learned about REUs—a highly competitive, national program—through Ben Ford at the College’s Center for Environment & Society, who was among the leaders of the Chesapeake Semester in which Butler participated. Butler also this year won a $1,000 Environmental Sciences Academic Scholarship from the Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.