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QUEEN CONCH RESEARCH

Craig Burnside with a newly tagged queen conch at West Flower Garden Bank
Craig Burnside with a newly tagged queen conch at West Flower Garden Bank.
Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Principle Investigator:

Dr. Craig Burnside
Assistant Professor of Biology
Bainbridge College
Bainbridge, GA
cburnside@bainbridge.edu

Research Assistant:

Jenna Fulghum, Valdosta State University, Valdost, GA
jennafulghum@hotmail.com

Background:

Craig Burnside holds a B.S. degree from Rutgers University (New Jersey, 1989) and both an M.S. (1992) and a Ph.D. (1998) from the University of Texas at Arlington, all in biology. He was also a Postdoc at Kansas State University where he worked on the molecular systematics of invertebrates.

Craig first became involved in research at the FGBNMS in 1995 as a volunteer for a GREAT (Gulf Reef Environmental Action Team) cruise to Stetson Bank before it was a part of the sanctuary. He has since been involved in surveying benthic invertebrate diversity, drilling mooring anchors and "anything else I was asked to help with."

Since 2001, Craig has been monitoring the population of Strombus gigas (queen conch) within the sanctuary. In 2004 he began a catch and release study of the queen conch.

Research Focus:

Population Ecology and Long Term Monitoring of Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Research Summary:

Craig Burnside began studying queen conchs (Strombus gigas) in the sanctuary in 2001, then took over as principle investigator in 2002. His initial focus was to get an idea of the size and health of the queen conch population at Stetson Bank, where these marine snails seemed most prevalent. Craig later expanded his work to include both East and West Flower Garden Banks.

Craig Burnside tightens a wire tag onto the crown of a queen conch shell
Craigh Burnside tightening a wire tag onto the crown of a queen conch at West Flower Garden Bank.
Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

In order to track the queen conch, Craig must tag each one he finds. To accomplish this, he threads a small metal ID tag onto a stainless steel wire that is then wrapped around the crown of each animal's shell and tightened in place. This system is inexpensive, relatively easy to attach underwater and does not interfere with the animals' day to day functions.

A queen conch with algae growing on its shell is well camouflaged on the
Can you spot the algae covered conch in this photo taken at Stetson Bank?
Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

How does Craig find the conchs to tag or monitor? He makes a lot of dives and visits a lot of open sand flats within the sanctuary. At Stetson Bank, this is a majority of the diveable area on top of the bank. However, algae is quite prevalent and grows both on the sandy substrate and on the queen conch shells. As a result, spotting the conchs can be a challenge. At East and West Flower Garden Banks, the sand flats are more scattered, but the conchs are generally easier to spot.

Craig Burnside checks lifts up a queen conch shell to make sure it is still occupied by a conch and not a hermit crab
Craig Burnside checks a queen conch shell to make sure it is still occupied by a conch and not a hermit crab.
Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Once a queen conch is located, Craig checks to make sure it is still alive and not just an empty shell or a hermit crab residence. Craig then checks the shell for an existing tag or evidence that one was previously attached (a corrosion mark from the original wire). If the snail has a tag, he notes the number and where it was found. If there is no tag, he attaches a new wire and tag. Then, of course, he notes what number was assigned and where it was located.

Craig was able to make population estimates for queen conch at Stetson Bank in 2004 and 2005. This effort was interrupted by Hurrican Rita which passed within 50 miles of Stetson Bank as a category 5 hurricane. A visit two weeks after the hurricane revealed that the storm had effectively scrubbed the bank of all benthic invertebrates. During the winter cruise of 2006, a few conch with tags were found at Stetson Bank, indicating that some individuls were able to survive the storm. In September 2007, at least 30 individuals were identified during dives at all three banks. Craig's work continues.

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Benefits:

By understanding the dynamics of the queen conch population, Craig feels that he is contributing to the understanding of the sanctuary and promoting its conservation. His research at the sanctuary has addressed basic questions about the size and health of the population of these snails.

Perhaps the largest impact Craig has seen is in education. Craig talks to each of his classes every semester about the sanctuary, the sanctuary program, and his personal involvement at the FGBNMS. Only a handful of his students over the last 12 years had any prior knowledge of the FGBNMS or the sanctuary program. By discussing these issues and describing his own involvement he not only widens their eyes to conservation efforts being conducted on their behalf, but also lets them see and get to know a real scientist. Craig has strived to include conservation, research and educatioin in all aspects of his professional life.

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