FAU Grad is a Real Life "Science Mermaid"

Chelsea Bennice

Chelsea Bennice

By brittany sylvestri | 5/2/2019

Chelsea Bennice, 33, could be described as a real life “science mermaid.” While spending more than 400 hours underwater studying octopus behavior as part of her Ph.D. research, she learned how two octopus species utilize different resources to allow coexistence, something that had previously never been studied. Bennice will be receiving her doctorate in integrative biology on Friday, May 3 at 5 p.m.

Bennice set out to research the question of species coexistence and investigate a group of animals where it is poorly understood, which led her to octopuses. She studies them locally at the Blue Heron Bridge at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach, an area of the Lake Worth Lagoon that is home to five different octopus species. Bennice developed a 24-hour camera to monitor the animals’ activity periods and to discover how potential predators impact their behavior. 

 “Octopuses lack a complex immune system and must rely on alternative strategies, possibly these beneficial bacteria, to combat infection. The diversity of habitats that octopuses live in, including coral reefs, make them an excellent model animal to identify beneficial bacteria for other reef-dwelling organisms,” she said. “Healthy marine animals lead to a healthy ocean. Scientists are constantly searching for solutions to help conserve coral reefs.”

Her next research project will be in collaboration with researchers at Nova Southeastern University, focusing on the identification of the octopus microbiome, the good bacterial community living on the octopus’s skin. 

Bennice has been dubbed “Octo Girl” and hosts social media accounts that showcase her work through photos and videos of her underwater research. She also handmakes marine-inspired jewelry for her Etsy shop, local dive shops, and nature centers. She donates 100 percent of the proceeds from her jewelry to benefit octopus research. 

Her research has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has been featured in an episode of WPBT2 South Florida PBS Changing Seas“Beneath the Bridge”and Schoolyard Films Inc. “Octopus Superpowers.”

When she’s not underwater, she talks at local schools and community centers about marine biology to inspire people of all ages to explore and learn more about ocean creatures. She also participates in the Blue Heron Bridge Preservation Society.

“I love when people are excited and engaged about local conservation,” said Bennice. 

Bennice received her bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University. She earned her master’s degree from FAU in 2012 and knew that she wanted to remain at FAU to complete her Ph.D.

“It has been my honor to advise Chelsea with her research,” said W. Randy Brooks, Ph.D., professor of biology at FAU. “If I had to use three words to describe her, they would be committed, energetic and successful. I look forward to seeing what she will accomplish in the future.”

She recently accepted a position at FAU Brain Institute’s ASCEND program following graduation, an innovative program used to address the national shortage in STEM career-oriented students.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of diving and monitoring octopus behavior,” said Bennice. “They’re such a fascinating marine animal and I’m grateful to play a role in conducting research on them and helping conservation efforts.”

  Chelsea Bennice