Coastal High School Students Do Blue Crab Research With Duke Faculty

High school students from Morehead City and Swan Quarter will soon be working alongside Duke University researchers to study blue crab behavior and its implications for the endangered whooping crane. 

Dan Rittschof, L.H. Snowdon Professor of Ecology at Duke University Marine Lab, will lead the research effort, which will be assisted by students from Cape Lookout Marine Science High School and Mattamuskeet Early College High School.

The researchers are studying how blue crabs move and their vulnerability to predation by large wading birds like the whooping crane.  Whooping cranes feed on blue crabs to fuel migration from their wintering grounds in coastal Texas to their breeding grounds in Northern Canada.  The whooping crane population dwindled to only 15 birds in the 1940s, but conservation efforts have resulted in a slow recovery for the species.

Students will support the research by collecting water quality information and taking photographs to document crab population and visibility data. Students will also collect DNA samples from the crabs for further analysis by university experts.  Data will be collected in Carteret County's Calico Creek and Lake Mattamuskeet. 

"We are very excited about this opportunity to conduct research and extend our marine science curriculum into the real world," said Luther Tootle, chairman of the Cape Lookout Marine Science High School Board of Directors.

"It is very exciting to be working  on such an innovative project with our sister schools in North Carolina and Texas," said Tracey Boyles, dean of academic services at Mattamuskeet Early College High School.  "Mattamuskeet Lake is a unique place, and I am glad our students are being given an opportunity to better understand its uniqueness."

Rittschof is similarly enthusiastic.  "Fisheries and blue crabs are our heritage," he said.  "It is time to learn about and support that heritage.  I like the idea of recognizing that science is fun and important to our daily lives and that we all can do it."

The project is funded by the Oak Foundation and the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program.  Research efforts will soon be initiated with students in both North Carolina and Texas. The school funding provides necessary supplies, instruments, and training to enable data collection on water quality and blue cab abundance by students, as well as curriculum support for teachers.