The Malahide field-laboratory

There is growing recognition that there needs to be a combination of field and laboratory experiments to investigate how natural and anthropogenic processes affect animals and plants living in marine habitats. Transferring organisms from the field and then caring for them in laboratory experiments is labour-intensive and often affects their physiology and behaviour, whilst doing experiments in the field can be difficult due to tides, a lack of electricity and running-water and the risk of losing sophisticated, expensive equipment. The University College Dublin, Malahide Marina, Colin Coady Marine and Fingal County Council are collaborating on a new field-laboratory which has a number of different habitats ranging from flats of mud, fields of boulders, including floating pontoons, breakwaters and seawalls made of concrete. Here facilities for research are being developed, including a programmable system for controlled delivery of experimental contaminants to large numbers of small experimental plots over extended periods of time to simulate complex disturbance regimes.. With the kind cooperation of Damian Offer the Manager of the marina we also have access to the marina facilities including running-water, electricity, internet, storage, restaurant, toilets and showers.

Our current work is investigating how chemicals (e.g. metals, biocides) we use each day influence native (mussels and crabs) and non-native animals (ascidians) and plants living on the Irish coastline. The chemicals will be added to assemblages of animals and plants living on the pontoons and breakwater, and our work will relate changes in the number and performance of organisms to the amount of chemicals in their tissues. The concentrations of chemicals we are adding are smaller than those applied to agricultural crops that we eat and those found in storm-water. Our work is providing important information about the best techniques used to monitor pollution and whether chemicals can make it easier for the non-native ascidians (Didemnum vexillum) to establish by reducing the ability of native organisms (e.g. mussels) to compete for food and space. Once this is completed, further work will integrate additional stressors (e.g. increases in sedimentation, nutrients and freshwater) that have been predicted under scenarios of climatic change and determine how these will affect organisms living in these habitats.

This work will contribute to the scientific understanding required to manage marine habitats affected by humans and conserve native biodiversity in a changing world.

The experimental equipment has been purchased through support by the Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) and the UCD Graduate Research Education Programme in Sustainable Development (funded jointly by IRCSET and the Irish Research Council for Health and Social Sciences ).