Scientists identify genetics of native beach grass to help protect dunes

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American beachgrass along Lake Ontario. Image: Donald Cameron

By Meghan King

For many Midwesterners summer memories are filled with climbing up sand dunes and running down them as fast as they can through dozens of beach grass plants.

Yet people do not realize how important these seemingly fragile and insignificant plants are to the dunes and the environment. Dunes are in every state in the Midwest and their beach grass is essential in stabilizing the sand, preventing soil erosion and protecting the dunes from flooding, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Recently Danilo D. Fernando, an associate professor at the State University of New York, and officials at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation were awarded almost $25,000 to use genetics to identify and restore native beach grass along Lake Ontario. They want to aid the reproduction of native species of American beach grass to achieve long-term species persistence, according to the Great Lakes Research Consortium, a university-based collaborative research and education organization.

Fernando hopes to expand this work to the entire Great Lakes region.

Beach grass plants put out underground rhizomes to give rise to new plants and colonize the dunes, experts say. These rhizomes can spread out 6 to 10 feet annually and help stabilize the dunes, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Fernando expects once the genetic material local to the region – its native genotype – is identified, his collaborators will establish propagation techniques to support large-scale breeding of the plants to aid beach restoration and stabilization.

And the work keeps an eye on the future.

“We want to examine genetic diversity and evolutionary potential of the native species,” Fernando said, “so that it goes beyond propagating them to ensuring their evolutionary potential and ability to adapt to future changes.”

The grant from the Great Lakes Research Consortium allows the team to further its research to eventually warrant larger grant funding, he said.

“The idea is we want to prove that there is a native genotype,” Fernando said, “and then once we can do that then we will apply for a bigger grant and do the same thing for the entire Great Lakes.”

Each year the Great Lakes Research Consortium, housed in the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, grants up to $25,000 per project to fund cooperative projects focused on developing new ways to protect and restore of the health of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

“We build research teams. We sponsor seminars. We help facilitate getting researchers together and develop science that would be beneficial to the Great Lakes,” said Gregory L. Boyer, director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium.

The small grants program acts as a way for the organization’s 18 U.S. universities and nine Canadian campus affiliates to test new ideas for conducting aquatic environment research.

“What we look at is what’s the underlying scientific research question and would a seed grant in that area move the science forward so that, that science can later be used for restoration activities and to improve the Great Lakes,” Boyer said.

Fernando credited the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and graduate student Adam Doniger for significant help on the project.

Editor’s note: The photo accompanying this story was changed 2/22/2021 to one of Lake Ontario beach grass.

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