DURHAM, N.C. – The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation have awarded a $1.2 million grant to support a new initiative aimed at boosting ecosystem restoration and climate resilience along North Carolina’s coast.

Scientists and conservationists at Duke University, North Carolina State University, The Nature Conservancy, and the North Carolina Coastal Federation will collaborate on the new project.

A major focus of their work will be restoring degraded and eroded salt marshes, seagrasses, and oyster reefs that help protect the state’s low-lying coastal communities from rising seas, intensifying storms, and other harmful impacts of climate change.

“These wetlands have traditionally formed our first line of defense to hurricanes and flooding. But over recent decades, we’ve lost thousands of acres of these natural breakwaters to pollution, development, overfishing, and neglect,” said Brian R. Silliman, Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who is a principal investigator on the initiative.

Silliman and his colleagues will use innovative approaches to wetland restoration pioneered at the Duke University Marine Lab to help reverse these losses.  

“Restoration efforts have traditionally focused on planting only the dominant, or primary, foundation species that forms the habitat,” Silliman said. “In North Carolina, that would be cordgrass, eelgrass, or the eastern oyster. This approach was thought to be best as it would reduce competition from other co-occurring grass and animal species. Our research over the last seven years, however, shows that to promote stronger regrowth and more rapid recovery of biodiversity and climate resilience you need to add, not exclude, secondary foundation species.”

For example, researchers in the Silliman lab have shown that adding mussels or clams to the base of salt marsh grasses, among the roots of seagrasses or in the cracks and crevices of oyster reefs increases regrowth of the ecosystem by acting as nutrient concentrators which fertilize the system. In addition to this, the mussels and clams increase biodiversity in the area where they are planted by protecting newly planted species from predation, and they boost ecosystem resilience to intense heat waves by retaining water during low tides.

“Amazingly, diversity triples in their presence and resistance to heat stress can increase by 20%,” said Silliman. “Including these secondary foundation species on top of the planting of the primary foundation species creates a positive cascade that generates outsized benefits that are currently unrealized in 99% of U.S. restoration projects. We aim to address this underperformance.”

The new $1.2 million three-year grant will enable Silliman and co-principal investigator Stacy Zhang, assistant professor of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences at NC State, to work closely with The Nature Conservancy and the North Carolina Coastal Federation and put the new approach to work at sites up and down the coast, at a scale that previously was not possible.

“The Nature Conservancy and the Coastal federation will be full partners in this. They’ll receive more than $500,000 to hire postdoctoral researchers and technicians who will monitor and manage the sites and become integral parts of our research team,” said Zhang.

“So, this isn’t just about restoring wetlands, important as that is,” she said. “It’s also about training North Carolina’s next generation of restoration ecologists and creating a network of scientists and practitioners who can work together to boost coastal restoration and resilience for years to come.”

In addition to his faculty appointment, Silliman also serves as associate director of the Duke University Wetland Center and director of Duke Restore, an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at advancing the science and practice of ecosystem restoration to enhance the resilience of at-risk natural and human systems alike.

Zhang earned her PhD from Duke in 2019 and was a member of Silliman’s lab.

The North Carolina initiative is one of six biodiversity-focused restoration projects funded this year through the NSF and Allen Family Fund’s new Partnership to Advance Conservation Science and Practice (PACSP).

“More than a million species across the globe are threatened with extinction and these projects are a step towards decreasing that number and slowing the rate of biodiversity loss on Earth,” said Simon Malcomber, acting assistant director for NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences. “These efforts are critical, because losing any species impacts society, whether by changes in disease patterns, decreases in natural pest control, ecosystem degradation, or by losing one of life’s unique solutions to problems that humans could have harnessed to our benefit.”





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