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Research, Education & Outreach

With a long history of research on our estuarine home, the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), we continue to use our scientific and technology expertise to find answers to research questions for this complex ecosystem and to produce educational opportunities. We collaborate with other research institutions, federal and state agencies, not-for-profits, governmental bodies and other interested parties to advance this research and education. Below are some of our research, education and public outreach efforts that involve the IRL.



Save Our Seas plate  Protect Wild Dolphins plate   Protect Florida Whales plate     Much of this research is funded by proceeds from Florida's Save Our Seas, Protect Wild Dolphins, and Protect Florida Whales specialty license plates.


The Indian River Lagoon Observatory: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function of an Estuary in Transition - Learn more here

LOBO installation

Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatories for Intensive, Real-time Water Quality Sampling in the IRL - Learn more here

Water Quality, Seagrass, and Macroalgal Monitoring in Central IRL - Building on a time series initiated in 2005, our high-frequency water quality and seagrass/macroalgal monitoring along a water quality gradient near Vero Beach and Fort Pierce demonstrates both human impacts and the tremendous climate-related interannual variability in IRL water quality, and will be used in models of estuarine health in the lagoon.

Evaluating the Feasibility of Transplanting to Promote Seagrass Recovery in the IRL - Partnering with St. Johns River Water Management District, we established experimental plots in July 2013 at three sites which have shown no recovery following the unprecedented loss of seagrass due to the 2011 “super bloom.” Initial results suggest that, in the absence of grazing pressure, environmental conditions present at all three sites are favorable for seagrass recovery.

B. Lapointe and L. Herren on the IRLEcology & Nutrition of Macroalgal Blooms in the IRL - Because persistent macroalgal blooms can reduce the prevalence and distribution of seagrass, we are studying the composition and seasonal variability of blooms and the nutrients fueling them at more than 20 sites throughout the IRL from Jupiter Inlet to the Mosquito Lagoon.

Study of Bacterial Contamination of the IRL - We have been investigating microbial populations in the IRL focusing on two distinct areas: indicator species commonly found in contaminated waters (e.g., fecal coliforms, enterococci) and antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in association with marine mammals. This work is intended to address a gap in long-term IRL datasets.

Estuarine Impacts on SLR: Determining the Effects of Changing Resource Management on Florida’s Northernmost Coral Reef - We have been studying the coral reef south of the St. Lucie Inlet to assess whether the freshwater discharges affecting the St. Lucie Estuary are harming the tropical coral reef species at their northern limit of distribution in the U.S.diver on St. Lucie Reef

Plankton Ecology of the IRL - This project explored the role that microzooplankton play in the trophic transfer of planktonic primary production in the south-central IRL, including the characterization of spatial and temporal variability in the structure of this community and measurement of primary production consumed by zooplankton.

Sources of Nitrogen & Phosphorus Inputs to the IRL - To help determine how land-use changes are affecting the IRL and enable science-based management decisions, we are analyzing stormwater from tributary relief canals and rivers in Indian River County to measure concentrations and determine sources of nitrogen and phosphorus.

The Effects of Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems (OSTDS) on Water Quality of the IRL - We are generating data characterizing the impact of OSTDS on IRL water quality in Indian River County by obtaining and analyzing groundwater and surface water samples from three relief canals and the St. Sebastian River, and through analysis of stable isotopes of nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, and elemental C:N:P in macrophyte tissue.

Bottlenose Dolphin Stranding Response & Necropsy - As a member of the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Network, FAU Harbor Branch is responsible for responding to marine mammal stranding incidents in the IRL and near-shore ocean waters.

Dolphin photo ID on the IRLIRL Bottlenose Dolphin IRL Bottlenose Dolphin Photo Identification - We have been conducting photo identification studies of IRL bottlenose dolphins since 1996, identifying more than 1,700 individual dolphins. Among the findings enabled by this data is identification of a distinct IRL stock now breeding its third generation since the study began, and insights into breeding and social behavior.

Population Biology & Behavioral Ecology - Genetic studies of IRL and coastal Atlantic bottlenose dolphins indicate that IRL dolphins are genetically distinct from coastal Atlantic dolphins and can be identified as such using three separate types of genetic methodology; one of which, MHC, is directly related to the immune response and environmental threats.

Epidemiology, Population Health Science & Pathology - The primary focus of our epidemiology research is determining what the health of IRL bottlenose dolphins tells us about the health of the ecosystem and potential human health implications. Studies include assessments of mercury concentrations, the prevalence and patterns of antibiotic-resistant organisms and lobomycosis, zoonotic diseases, and the pathophysiology of stress.

Environmental Correlates of Habitat use by Manatees in the Harbor Branch Channel Using Advanced Technologies - To assess environmental conditions accompanying thermal-refuge use by the endangered Florida manatee, as well as the use of advanced technologies to observe the species, our scientists and engineers developed a program focused on the Harbor Branch channel, which is a common gathering space for IRL manatees particularly during winter months. Remote observation was complemented by a team of volunteer spotters.


Broader Efforts to Foster ResearchIRL Symposium presentation

Indian River Lagoon Symposium 2014 – Lagoon Biodiversity - For the third year in a row, FAU Harbor Branch and a multi-institution steering committee organized and hosted the Indian River Lagoon Symposium in February, providing a forum for all active researchers and agencies working in the IRL to share research findings and discuss challenges and opportunities. Approximately 300 people, including 60 students, attended. The program and abstracts are available here

Our Global Estuary Workshop (October 21-23, 2013) - FAU Harbor Branch hosted this meeting of approximately 50 invited experts from the U.S. east and west coasts, the Gulf of Mexico region, Alaska and Australia. Our Global Estuary is a response to the urgent need to anticipate and manage changes in estuaries – locally critical ecosystems whose aggregate services are essential for regional and global sustainability. A report from the workshop is in progress.



Training of Graduate Students - Students are currently pursuing graduate degrees in FAU biological and environmental sciences degree programs, often using the IRL as a research site. Harbor Branch courses include Natural History of the Indian River Lagoon, an interdisciplinary overview of the IRL ecosystem. Hands-on field and lab work focus on introducing students to the biodiversity of the IRL, its management and human impacts.

Semester by the Sea studentsSemester By The Sea - FAU Harbor Branch faculty provide undergraduate students with a semester-long immersion in marine science, including extensive field experience in the IRL.

Harbor Summer Intern Program - This competitive program attracts top undergraduate and graduate students worldwide for a 10-week immersion in projects that touch on all aspects of research at Harbor Branch, with many projects involving the IRL.

Marine and Oceanographic Academy (MOA) - MOA is a model for partnering a marine research institute with a public school system to improve the scientific literacy of high school students and their teachers. Located at Harbor Branch, MOA is a magnet high school program of Fort Pierce’s Westwood High School. Approximately 15% of the science coursework is taught by Harbor Branch instructors, with most of the field work done in the IRL.

Indian River County Junior Scientists Fellows Program - FAU Harbor Branch and the Indian River Land Trust have formed a unique partnership to fully engage high school students in the research and care of the environmentally sensitive 185-acre Coastal Oaks Preserve. A team of Harbor Branch scientists and educators is sharing their expertise about problems facing our Lagoon and mentoring research conducted by the students to provide scientific information needed for conservation management of the Lagoon and its sensitive shoreline habitats.


Public Outreach

Ocean Science Lecture Series - The Ocean Science Lecture Series is a forum for Harbor Branch researchers and guest speakers to inform general audiences about their work and a range of ocean science and engineering concepts. Many of the lectures focus on IRL research.ODC interior

Ocean Discovery Center - The Ocean Discovery Center provides the public with interpretations of Harbor Branch research and nearby marine environments including the IRL via a continually evolving array of interactive exhibits, small live animal tanks, video, and other displays.

Indian River Lagoon Video - With perspectives from Harbor Branch researchers, this 5.5-minute video profiles the IRL with emphasis on critical issues facing this estuary of national significance.

How to Love Your Lagoon - This two-sided handout provides basic information about the IRL and what the public can do to help protect this invaluable resource.