New paper on biodiversity and stability published in Ecology


A new paper, led by Jonathan Walter at the University of Virginia, has been published in Ecology. The study investigates how species richness—a core facet of biodiversity—changes across space in ways that are similar or dissimilar. The work paired a theoretical model with the analysis of decades of biodiversity data from 20 marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the U.S. Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. The study discovered that synchrony in species richness is common in nature and strongly related to ecosystem stability. The work highlights a new approach for studying biodiversity and emphasizes the spatial dimensions of stability.

The new findings have been summarized by the LTER Network Office. The paper can be downloaded here.

Photo credit: Morgan Winston, NOAA.

Castorani Lab welcomes Dr. Maowei Liang


The Castorani Lab welcomes Dr. Maowei Liang as a new postdoctoral scholar at UVA. Maowei will be studying the role of grazing and other environmental factors in structuring synchrony in kelp forest ecosystems as part of our collaborative NSF grantPrior to joining UVA, Maowei was a postdoc with Dr. Shaopeng Wang at Peking University. He completed his PhD at Inner Mongolia University, where he studied the influence of grazing and climate on the ecological function and biodiversity of grasslands. 

Welcome Maowei!

New paper on kelp forest productivity published in Ecology Letters


A new paper, coauthored with researchers at UC Santa Barbara, has been published in the journal Ecology Letters. In a decade-long field experiment at the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER, we tested how kelp forest net primary productivity (NPP) responds to the repeated loss of canopy-forming giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) along a gradient in grazing and substrate suitability. We found that canopy disturbance suppressed total macroalgal NPP, but effects were strongest in high-quality habitats that supported dense kelp canopies susceptible to disturbance.  The understory partly compensated for canopy NPP losses and this effect magnified with increasing habitat quality. Importantly, disturbance-driven increases in understory NPP were still rising after 5–10 years of disturbance, demonstrating the value of long-term experimentation for understanding ecosystem responses to changing disturbance regimes.

These new findings have been summarized by the National Science Foundation, UVA Today, and The UCSB CurrentThe paper can be downloaded here.


Photo credit: Douglas Klug.

Student fellowship announcements


Three graduate students and one recent undergraduate student in the Castorani Lab have recently received fellowships for their research. Kinsey Tedford has been awarded a Jefferson Scholars Foundation Fellowship for her dissertation research on oyster reef ecology and restoration. Michael Cornish and Sean Hardison have each been awarded a Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellowship for their dissertation work on the ecology of fish and shellfish in coastal Virginia. Lastly, recent undergraduate alumni Carrie Wentzel has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study seagrass ecology and conservation ecology in Fiji. Congratulations to Kinsey, Michael, Sean, and Carrie! 

Postdoc position in population and community ecology


We are currently seeking a postdoctoral research associate in quantitative population and community ecology. The position is part of a 3-year NSF-funded research project focused on the widespread ecological phenomenon of synchrony, the tendency for populations in distant locations to rise and fall in unison. Find more information and apply here. Applications are due February 20, 2021. 

Photo credit: Nick Schooler.

New NSF award covered by UVA Today


UVA Today has published a conversation with Max Castorani and Jon Walter about their new research award from the National Science Foundation. The $1.2 million grant will support research to discover the patterns, causes, and consequences of synchrony in California kelp forests. This work represents a collaborative effort by researchers at UVA, University of KansasUC Santa Barbara, and UCLAThe funds will also provide opportunities for undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral training in ecology, marine biology, and applied statistics.

Two coastal ecology PhD opportunities in Castorani Lab


We are seeking two new PhD students to join our lab in the fall of 2021! Follow this link to learn more.

New UVA seagrass website is live


We have launched a new collaborative website highlighting over two decades of ongoing seagrass research from our group and our broader team of colleagues. The key focus is our work on seagrass blue carbon, restoration and resilience, and maintaining biodiversity. Learn more at

New paper on compensatory dynamics published in Ecosphere


A new paper, led by Lei Zhao at China Agricultural University, has been published in Ecosphere as part of a Special Feature on Empirical Perspectives from Mathematical EcologyCompensation among species is a key mechanism underpinning ecological stability, but compensatory dynamics can occur on different timescales (e.g., annual vs. decadal). This new work describes a novel timescale-specific variance ratio that improves upon the classic variance ratio by decomposing it according to the timescales of distinct drivers. By applying this new metric to long-term community data from U.S. LTER grassland sites, we detect the timescales over which species exhibit compensatory dynamics and show that synchronous dynamics are intrinsically timescale-dependent.

The paper can be downloaded here.

New paper on disturbance ecology published in BioScience


A new paper, led by Evelyn Gaiser at Florida International University, has been published in the journal BioScienceWe develop a new framework for disturbance ecology that incorporates social-ecological feedbacks and interactions among disturbances and accelerating global change. We then compare recent discoveries from seven US Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites to demonstrate how disturbance can maintain or alter ecosystem states, drive spatial patterns at landscape scales, influence social–ecological interactions, and cause divergent outcomes depending on other environmental changes.

The paper can be downloaded here.

New paper on species coexistence published in Ecology


A new paper, coauthored with Marissa Baskett at UC Davis, has been published in the journal Ecology. Using mathematical models of seagrass and colonial burrowing shrimp, which compete for space in shallow estuaries, we show how shifts in the size and frequency of disturbance mediate biodiversity through a coexistence mechanism known as the spatial storage effect. Our study also provides theoretical support for the intermediate disturbance hypothesis.

The paper can be downloaded here.

Virginia Coast Reserve LTER All Scientists Meeting


We are gearing up for an exciting year of research at the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research project following our annual All Scientists Meeting! We have plans for a number of new and ongoing studies that will help uncover the patterns, mechanisms, and consequences of ecological change across coastal barrier-island landscapes. 

Our lab is especially focused on understanding how seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, and mudflats are changing in response to restoration and broader environmental shifts, and what this means for the structure and function of coastal ecosystems. 

Stay tuned for results from these long term research efforts!

We’re hiring! Postdoc in Quantitative Ecology of Kelp Forest Ecosystems


We are seeking a highly-motivated postdoctoral research associate to contribute to studies of the population and community ecology of kelp forest ecosystems in southern California. 

The position will focus on the analysis of long-term ecological and oceanographic data from observational and experimental studies associated with the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research Project (, which has been funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation since 2000. Research will contribute towards the broad goal of understanding how environmental variation (e.g., nutrients, climate, disturbance) and ecological processes (e.g., competition, predation, dispersal) interact to structure the population dynamics of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) and the biodiversity of reef fishes, invertebrates, and algae. 

Find details and apply at:

Castorani Lab welcomes Dr. Rachel Smith


The Castorani Lab welcomes Dr. Rachel Smith to UVA for Fall 2019. Rachel is a new postdoctoral scholar in The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) NatureNet Science Fellow Program. She will be working in collaboration with UVA’s Virginia Coast Reserve LTER and TNC on the ecology and conservation science of restored oyster reefs on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Prior to joining UVA, Rachel completed her PhD at the University of Georgia, where she studied the community ecology of mangrove forests and salt marshes. 

Welcome Rachel!

Castorani Lab welcomes two new PhD students


The Castorani Lab welcomes two new PhD students to UVA for Fall 2019. 

Sean Hardison (far left) was most recently a data analyst at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center, where his work included developing integrated ecosystem assessments for Mid-Atlantic and New England fisheries. He received a BS in biology from Penn State and a Master’s degree in biology from UNC Wilmington. Sean is interested in remote sensing, pattern recognition, population dynamics, and statistics. 

Michael Cornish (third from left) joins us after receiving his BA in human ecology from College of the Atlantic. His undergraduate research included studies of sandy beach ecosystems at the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER. Michael is interested in spatial ecology, predator-prey dynamics, ichthyology, and remote sensing.

Welcome Sean and Michael!

Kinsey Tedford and Carrie Wentzel receive research awards


Two students in the Castorani Lab–PhD student Kinsey Tedford and undergraduate student Carrie Wentzelhave received awards from the UVA Department of Environmental Sciences for their summer research projects on coastal ecology. 

Kinsey Tedford will receive support from the Graduate Exploratory Research Award for her dissertation research on the ecology of oyster reefs in coastal Virginia. Carrie Wentzel will receive support from the Hart Family Award for her research on the recovery of seagrasses at Point Reyes National Seashore in coastal California.

New paper on biodiversity and the loss of kelp forests published in Ecology


A new paper, coauthored with colleagues at UC Santa Barbara, has been published in the journal Ecology

Our work reports the results of a uniquely long-term (9 years), large-scale field experiment aimed at understanding how the loss of giant kelp forests by storms and other disturbances—which some climate models forecast to change in frequency or severity—alters the biodiversity of over 200 species of fishes, invertebrates, and seaweeds found within these coastal environments. We discovered that the frequency of giant kelp loss was the most important factor influencing the types and abundance of benthic sea life, whereas the severity of disturbance in a given year played a minor role. Annual loss of giant kelp caused a doubling of smaller algae and invertebrates attached to the seafloor (corals, anemones, sponges), but also resulted in 30–61% fewer fish and shellfish, such as clams, sea urchins, lobsters, crabs, and sea stars. These dramatic shifts indicate that future increases in the frequency of coastal storms and other drivers of kelp loss will likely cause big changes to marine biodiversity. By demonstrating the importance of studying repeated disturbances over many year, our experiment is also a testimony to the value of long-term ecological research.

These new findings have been summarized by the National Science FoundationUVA Today, and The UCSB Current. The paper can be downloaded here.

UC Santa Barbara graduate student Joseph Peters identifies small understory seaweeds in a kelp forest near Isla Vista, California. Photo credit: Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research Project.

Two coastal ecology PhD opportunities in Castorani Lab


The Castorani Lab at the University of Virginia is recruiting two PhD students to study (1) the biodiversity and community ecology of coastal marine ecosystems and (2) the spatial ecology and dynamics of coastal habitats using drone- and satellite-based remote sensing, respectively. The students will be advised by professor Max Castorani (, and join UVA’s highly interdisciplinary Department of Environmental Sciences ( and collaborative Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research program ( 

Focal study habitats include seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, and salt marshes within the coastal lagoon–barrier island system of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Possibilities also exist for research on estuaries and kelp forests in California. The students will have opportunities to contribute to highly collaborative long-term studies in the Virginia Coast Reserve and Santa Barbara Coastal ( LTER programs. Although research in the Castorani Lab is primarily motivated by fundamental ecological questions, there are opportunities for applied research related to coastal habitat restoration (seagrass, kelp, oysters) and commercial aquaculture (oysters, clams). 

(1) Biodiversity and community ecology of coastal marine ecosystems: Prospective students should be interested in undertaking observational and experimental field studies of benthic invertebrate and fish assemblages in temperate coastal ecosystems, primarily those along Virginia’s Eastern Shore, as well as analyzing existing long-term community data. At the time of enrollment, highly-qualified applicants will have an undergraduate or master’s degree in biology, ecology, fisheries, or a related field. Ideal candidates will have experience in field ecology, ideally having carried out experiments within marine or aquatic ecosystems; knowledge of the biology of marine organisms; strong quantitative skills; and data analysis experience using R. 

(2) Spatial ecology of coastal habitats using drone and satellite remote sensing: Prospective students should be interested in studying the dynamics of coastal habitats in Virginia and California using optical and multispectral imagery gathered from unmanned aerial and satellite platforms. At the time of enrollment, highly-qualified applicants will have an undergraduate or master’s degree in biology, ecology, environmental science, geography, computer science, or a related field. Ideal candidates will have FAA Remote Pilot Certification (“Part 107” license); experience flying small unmanned aircraft; strong quantitative skills; experience with the collection, processing, and analysis of remotely-sensed data; and knowledge of geospatial analyses using R, Matlab, Python, or ArcGIS. 

UVA has a highly interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environmental Sciences (, offering training and conducting research in ecology, geosciences, hydrology, and atmospheric sciences. Graduate students accepted into the program are typically supported through a mixture of teaching assistantships and research assistantships that provide a competitive stipend, tuition, and health insurance. 

Those interested should send the following items, as a single PDF, to Dr. Max Castorani ( (1) a brief description of their background, career goals, motivations for pursuing a graduate degree, research ideas, and why they are specifically interested in joining the Castorani Lab; (2) a CV with academic and professional experience (including GPA); (3) contact information for 2–3 references; and (4) a writing sample. 

The application deadline is January 15, 2019 for enrollment in Fall 2019, however serious applicants should express their interest as soon as possible.

Castorani Lab opening at University of Virginia in Fall 2017


I am thrilled to announce that I will be joining the University of Virginia as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences in the Fall Semester of 2017. ​Prospective graduate students and postdocs should read about opportunities in the lab or find me at upcoming meetings of ESACERF, or WSN.

New paper on giant kelp metapopulations in Proc Roy Soc B


 A new paper, coauthored with colleagues at UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Using sophisticated ocean circulation models and long term measurements of giant kelp abundance and fecundity from satellite data, we have discovered the importance of connectivity to the persistence, extinction, and recovery of giant kelp populations in southern California. Our work also reveals that year-to-year changes in spore production are the most important to successfully rescuing neighboring kelp populations. These findings advance understanding of metapopulation biology broadly, but are also valuable to ocean conservation because they can inform which kelp forests should be prioritized for protection or where coastal restoration efforts could be most effective.

Our results have also been summarized by The UCSB Current

From left to right: Rachel Simons, Dan Reed, Max Castorani, Dave Siegel, and Tom Bell. Photo credit: Sonia Fernandez

New paper in ES&T: Metabolomics of seagrass stress


A new paper, led by Harald Hasler-Sheetal and coauthored with Marianne HolmerRonnie Glud, and Don Canfield has been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Eutrophication of estuaries and coastal seas is accelerating, increasing light stress on subtidal marine plants and changing their interactions with other species. We undertook the first empirical test of how environmental conditions mediate the metabolic mechanisms underlying species interactions by testing how eutrophication-associated light reductions alter interactions between the a habitat-forming seagrass and a commercially-valuable mussel. Using novel metabolomic analysis, we found cryptic changes to seagrass condition that could not be detected by traditional approaches. Our findings suggest that coastal eutrophication and associated reductions in light may shift seagrass-bivalve interactions from mutualistic to antagonistic, which is important for conservation management of seagrass meadows.

Photo credit: Donna Ball and Erin Koshko.

New paper: Native predator chemical cues induce anti-predation behaviors in an invasive marine bivalve


A new paper, coauthored with Kevin Hovel (San Diego State University), has been published in the journal Biological Invasions. We undertook an experiment to test how an invasive mussel responds to chemical cues from several novel native predators. We found that despite limited evolutionary history with native predators, invasive mussels respond with selective anti-predation behaviors and thus are not naïve to the threat of predation from native predators. These results provide new insight to the ‘naïve prey’ hypothesis and help explain the global success of a notorious marine invader. A PDF is available here

Photo: L. Ilyes