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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Studying ancient sea critters

URI student’s horseshoe crab research jumpstarts environmental career

Todd McLeish

Anna Sorgie enrolled at the University of Rhode Island last year because she knew she would have opportunities for hands-on wildlife research inside and outside the classroom. And she hasn’t been disappointed.

“I’m passionate about conserving the environment, and I want to make a positive difference in our world,” said Sorgie, a sophomore who grew up in Tuckahoe, New York, and went to high school in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

 “Wildlife conservation is the path that excites me most. From a young age, my grandfather introduced me to taking care of the environment. He told me that even an anthill is important.”

Horseshoe crabs are, too.

Sorgie spent the last four months immersed in intensive studies of horseshoe crabs, the ancient marine creature closely related to spiders and scorpions. In collaboration with URI graduate student Natalie Ameral, the project aimed to determine whether the various populations of horseshoe crabs in southern New England waters are genetically distinct or whether they interbreed.

“Understanding the specifics of each population is super important,” said Sorgie, a wildlife and conservation biology major. “Knowing the specific details of the populations – their survival rate, how far they travel, for instance – has a lot of implications for how to manage them.”

Sorgie and Ameral visited nearly a dozen locations along the Rhode Island coast at night during high tides to record data from spawning horseshoe crabs and collect a tissue sample from each animal. 

Although the pandemic has delayed the laboratory analysis, Sorgie also led a project to monitor how the crabs recover from the tissue sample collection. All 22 she tracked survived and exhibited normal behavior.

One of the most notable findings during her summer of research was that more than half of all the tagged horseshoe crabs that were later recaptured somewhere in the state were found on Napatree Point in Westerly, regardless of where they were originally tagged. Some traveled more than 30 miles from their original tagging location to find their way to Napatree.

“It must mean that Napatree Point is a super important site for horseshoe crabs,” Sorgie said. “We’re now going to propose that it be designated a marine life management area. I’m so glad that I was part of making that determination.”

As useful as it was to gain the hands-on experience she sought, Sorgie said that the most important thing she learned from her horseshoe crab project was to challenge herself.

“I knew coming into this project that I was just a freshman but I shouldn’t let that limit me,” she said. “I learned to challenge myself and go after what I want and don’t let my inexperience hold me back. And it ended up being a great experience.

“It was also great to learn what a job in this field would be like and how a student like me could take on my own research project as a grad student,” Sorgie added. “It opened up ideas for what I could do with my future.”

Sorgie’s research is supported by the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 24th year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.

As Sorgie wraps up her work on her horseshoe crab project, she is looking ahead to leading an environmental service trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, next spring with a dozen other students. Last year she participated in a service trip to New Hampshire, where she maintained trails, removed invasive plants and restored habitat.

It’s still early for her to have identified a distinct career path, so Sorgie is seeking more hands-on research opportunities – both in the field and in the lab – to help her determine her next steps.

“I’ll probably go to grad school eventually,” she said. “But I want to get some experience first before deciding. I’m definitely interested in environmental restoration, so that might be a path I take. But I’m still trying to figure everything out.”