Croatian building

Researching subterranean ecosystems along the Adriatic Coast

Dr. Renee Bishop-Pierce has received seed money from Penn State and the University of Split, in Croatia, to create a long-term, self-supporting sustainable research collaboration on the impact of subterranean groundwater discharge on coastal ecosystems in Croatia. She leaves in May to continue the research she began in 2012.
By: Amy Gruzesky
PSWS professor, Dr. Renee Bishop-Pierce, to continue her research this summer

Dr. Renee Bishop-Pierce has traveled the world to study the tiniest of organisms and aquatic life in some of the most remote locations and harshest environments around – remote coastal locations and underwater caves.

An associate professor of biology at Penn State Worthington Scranton, she studies and researches the physiology of marine organisms, most recently using energetics to address the ecological physiology of stygobitic, anchialine ecosystems.

Her research has taken her to tiny villages in Croatia – Solina and Martinska, as well as Perth, Australia, the Australian Outback, Mexico, lava tubes of Lanzarote, Spain, the Bahamas and Bermuda. She even participated in an Antarctic ice-diving excursion in 1998.

“I study subterranean ecosystems, aquatic organisms living underground that most people don’t usually think about,” she said.

This year, she was awarded seed money from Penn State and the University of Split, in Croatia, to create a long-term, self-supporting sustainable research collaboration on the impact of subterranean groundwater discharge on coastal ecosystems in Croatia.

The project will help Bishop-Pierce continue the research she began there in 2012.

She will be returning to Croatia in May, where she will work with another Penn State professor, Dr. Mitch Holland, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and director of the forensic science program; University of Split Vice Rector, Dr. Alen Soldo; and a team of student divers.

“Croatia has some of the the greatest bio-diversity of subterranean ecosystems,” Bishop-Pierce explained.

“Vruljas,” the Croatian term for submerged springs where groundwater enters the ocean, impact the productivity of coastal ecosystems. These fresh water springs create nursery habitat for sea life. However, coastal development and human activity, which is increasing, has had an impact, and not necessarily a good one, on the natural coastal environment, both surface and subterranean.

Bishop-Pierce’s previous research found high levels of mercury in some coastal caves and even on the surface downwind of the caves they explored.

Historically these caves have served as a source of potable water. Water within caves moves thorough the ground water, potentially impacting the current water supply of remote island villages.

“What we do on land, ends up in the ocean,” she said.

With these areas currently having very low populations (around 100), the issue is not at a critical state -- as long as they can make the residents aware of the problem and they don’t drink the water, Bishop-Pierce stated.

However, since entering the Eurpoean Union in 2013, Croatia is experiencing a great deal of coastal development. With development there is an increase in freshwater demands, reducing the flow from the springs to the ocean.

Our interest is to study and monitor the impact the vruljas have on coastal productivity, Bishop explained. She and her colleagues want to determine what is happening with the water quality, organisms and sea life in these areas before any future development and population growth occurs, so that scientists can monitor it.

The project is expected to have considerable value to a broad sector of the population in Croatia and neighboring countries.

However, the impact doesn’t stop there. In addition to getting invaluable information on these ecosystems and coastal communities, Bishop-Pierce and Soldo are also looking to collaborate on a class teaching coastal biology.

In fact, the collaborative component of this project is expected to promote immediate and future student involvement in this area of study and, according to the grant announcement Bishop-Pierce received, shows “good potential for direct student involvement at many levels.”

Sparking student interest in this area of study is nothing new for Bishop-Pierce. A few years ago, she took Penn State Worthington Scranton alumnus Kyle Walsh, then an undergraduate student, with her to Croatia. The research he conducted on that trip garnered him first place in the science category in the campus’ 2014 Undergraduate Research Fair for his project, "Analyzing Gastropods from Two Anchialine Cave Systems" (in Croatia). He is now in a graduate program at the University of Miami.

Bishop-Pierce also records podcasts on her research trips, which she posts online for her students at Penn State Worthington Scranton – two of which have already expressed an interest in going on her next trip.

This particular project is also part of a larger initiative Penn State has had with the University of Split since 2011. The University’s Eberly College of Science, in conjunction with its forensic science program, has an established a partnership with the University of Split to expand educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students and to encourage relationships between the faculties of the two universities.

This partnership helps to facilitate student exchange programs; faculty exchanges; joint research projects; educational programs in forensic science and other scientific disciplines; faculty development; and the exchange of scientific materials, publications, and information.