Student award winner investigates climate-driven changes to seaweed distribution in Atlantic Iberian marine forests

Raquel Gaião Silva, a Master’s student based at the University of Algarve and first award recipient from Portugal, seeks to understand the impact of climate change on the distribution of macroalgae on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula

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Raquel Gaião Silva, 2018 GBIF Young Researchers Award winner

Raquel Gaião Silva, a Master’s student in marine biodiversity and conservation based at the University of Algarve, is one of the two recipients of GBIF’s 2018 Young Researchers’ Award—and the first winner from Portugal. Her research aims to use species occurrence records from the GBIF network and other sources to examine whether and how rising ocean temperatures may be altering the distribution of macroalgae along the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal.

Large brown algae, like kelps and fucoids, and macroalgae from other groups act as the keystone species for marine forests around the world. The rich, complex ecosystems they give rise to provide food, habitat and nursery grounds for numerous marine organisms, including fishery species of great economic and cultural importance. In lower latitudes near the southern extent of their ranges, macroalgae are most sensitive to changes in water temperature, and rising temperatures can prompt adaptation, range contraction or expansion and, in some cases, local extirpations.

Gaião’s research is expected to highlight important issues related to climate-induced impacts on marine macroalgae from the Bay of Biscay to the Strait of Gibraltar, including

  • unreported recent changes in distribution, particularly at the southern geographic limits of species’ ranges
  • assessments of temperature trends as they relate to the known physiological preferences and limits of the species under investigation
  • forecasts of species distribution patterns based on future temperature models

GBIF-mediated species occurrences comprise about half of the data in Gaião’s study. The balance come from online sources like the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) and the Macroalgae collection of the University of Coimbra (MACOI) (both GBIF data publishers) combined with Portuguese herbarium collections in Porto, Aveiro, Lisbon and Faro, and Marine Forests, an international open-access citizen science project. The results of her research could benefit researchers, policymakers and coastal residents, both within and beyond the study area.

Gaião has just completed doing her thesis for EMBC+, a two-year International Master of Science in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation programme led by a consortium of six European universities, including the University of Algarve, and supported by 60 partners worldwide. The programme gives students the option to choose study pathways suited to their research interests and career aspirations. Gaião began her studies at the University of Algarve, taking classes with Prof. Ester Serrão, who later became her thesis advisor. During the course’s third semester, she attended to Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland, taking several courses critical to her research.

“There are large amounts of data from the past state of biodiversity for many regions across the world, that are not used because they are not easily accessible to the researchers and the general public,” said Prof. Serrão. “It is therefore extremely useful and important to have a resource like GBIF integrating data on global scales, allowing researchers like Raquel to integrate all such sources efficiently and to analyse what has been changing in the biodiversity of ecosystems along large regions.”

Gaião is the first winner from Portugal, and her award marks the third consecutive year that a Portuguese speaker has received the honour, following Bruno Umbelino and Itanna Oliveira Ferndandes of Brazil in 2016 and 2017, respectively. With the 17 September release of a Portuguese-language interface for GBIF.org, produced by volunteers from GBIF’s Lusophone community, GBIF Portugal and the Brazilian Biodiversity Information System (SiBBr) Brazil have helped improve conditions for continuing the streak in 2019.

The GBIF Science Committee selected Gaião and Kate Ingenloff, a PhD candidate from the United States, from a pool of 14 candidates nominated by heads of delegation from 11 GBIF Participant countries. Committee members highlighted the potential for Gaião’s study to produce important scientific output on climate-related impacts for macroalgae, a taxonomic order of ecological, social and economic significance in coastal communities around the world.