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Behavioral Ecology & Physiology

The Behavioral Ecology and Physiology Program employs cutting-edge technology to quantify fine-scale aspects of behavior and physiology in a variety of vertebrate species. Although most of this research focuses on sharks, we have expanded the application of our techniques to other marine and even terrestrial species in collaboration with various local, national and international partners in both academic and government agencies. Our work generally involves studying behaviors in wild animals that are difficult to observe, quantifying the effect of environmental variables on those behaviors, or measuring the impact of some disturbance on animal recovery and survival. This is done by applying high-resolution data-loggers to animals in their natural habitat.

Because these data-loggers often incorporate acceleration sensors, we are also able to quantify activity-related energy expenditure in tagged animals, and thus provide insight into the physiological constraints that may be driving behavior. To this end, we are also beginning an intensive effort to correlate acceleration with oxygen consumption in several species of coastal sharks using respirometry on animals in Mote’s Marine Experimental Research Facility. Knowing the relationship between acceleration and oxygen consumption will allow us to estimate the oxygen consumption (and hence energy expenditure) of animals in the wild using their acceleration data alone. This approach will allow us to bridge the gap between the laboratory and the field in order to obtain highly accurate estimates of field metabolic rate.

Projects within this program are funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Geographic Society, the Waitt Foundation, the Pritzker Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Benthic Ecology

The Benthic Ecology Program focuses on the science and ecology of bottom-dwelling organisms and how these organisms respond to environmental disturbance. The Program, created in 1979, has conducted hundreds of research projects and monitoring studies in partnership with federal, state and local agencies as well as partners in business and industry.

The Program’s projects include shellfish restoration and monitoring in places like Pine Island Sound and Boca Ciega Bay and the investigation of “blue holes,” which are former springs and sinkholes that formed off the west Florida shelf when sea level rose. The program also investigates inland springs.

The Benthic Ecology Program has also coordinated large multidisciplinary projects such as environmental assessments in conjunction with other Mote research programs focused on manatees, sea turtle, fisheries, ecotoxicology, phytoplankton ecology, sharks and coral reefs.

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Chemical & Physical Ecology

The Chemical & Physical Ecology Program includes a NELAC-approved water quality laboratory and conducts research and provides water quality monitoring services throughout Florida. (NELAC is a national accrediting body that certifies laboratory quality and standards. This certification validates all of the water quality laboratory's measurements.) It conducts monthly water quality sampling for Sarasota County, participates in the national EcoHAB program and provides analytical support for many other programs at Mote. EcoHAB is the Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms Research Program — a multi-agency partnership between NOAA's Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (CSCOR-lead), NOAA Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Sea Grant, the National Science Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Office of Naval Research.

The Chemical & Physical Ecology Program also conducts studies on optical brighteners contained in laundry detergents, leading to the development of a new tool for examining seepage from septic tanks into local water bodies. The program has also been extensively involved in research to define the relationships between seagrass health and light-reducing factors such as chlorophyll, color, epiphytes and dissolved organic matter.

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Coral Reef Restoration

Worldwide, coral reef ecosystems are at risk from many factors, including climate change, ocean acidification and other threats. The coral ecosystem includes hard corals, soft corals, seagrass meadows, macroalgae, invertebrates and vertebrates.
Mote’s Coral Reef Restoration Program seeks to develop systems and techniques to grow coral and other reef species that play a vital role in coral health, such as sea urchins, for replanting in depleted reef systems and for scientific study, and works closely with other organizations, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy in its efforts.

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Coral Reef Science & Monitoring

This program monitors and assesses reef processes and environmental factors that influence reef health. Current projects include monitoring ultraviolet light penetration of reef waters and the influence of environmental factors, monitoring harmful algal blooms and other marine events and assessing their potential impacts on the reef environment and developing a community-based coral bleaching monitoring and assessment program.

Studies are conducted through the Staghorn Nursery and Restoration Project, BleachWatch, the Marine Ecosystem Event Response and Assessment (MEERA) Project and Red Tide and Harmful Algal Bloom monitoring. The program also supports other Mote research programs and visiting scientists, providing services such as sample collections, underwater surveys, video documentation, and instrument deployment and maintenance.
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Dolphin Research

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program conducts the world's longest-running study of a wild dolphin population. The Program is a collaboration between Mote Marine Laboratory, where the program originated in 1970, the Chicago Zoological Society, which supports the program today, and colleagues from around the world. The primary purpose is to understand the biology, health, behavior and ecology and the human factors — including environmental contaminants and fishing gear interactions — that impact populations of small cetaceans.

The Program uses an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach in conducting studies of bottlenose dolphins within the unique long-term “natural laboratory” of Sarasota Bay, which is the year-round home of more than 160 identifiable resident individuals, spanning at least five generations. Program efforts also include research and consultations in the southeastern U.S., Cuba, South America, Southeast Asia and other locations around the world. The Program also conducts follow-up monitoring of dolphins and whales that have been treated at Mote and other rehabilitation hospitals and returned to the wild to determine the success of treatment.
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The Ecotoxicology Program investigates natural biotoxins and chemical pollutants in the marine environment, including sources, routes of exposure, bioaccumulation and persistence in affected organisms. The Program also investigates trophic transfer through the food web.  A major focus is to uncover the cause-and-effect relationships between exposure and adverse impacts in order to reduce the risk to natural resources and public health.  

One major focus is the analysis of natural biotoxins — particularly from the organism that causes Florida red tide (Karenia brevis) — in water, air and marine animals, in order to learn how marine life and humans are exposed, how the toxins affect them and what can be done to mitigate the adverse effects. Another is the analysis of  effects of chemical pollutants, including pesticides, petroleum and industrial chemicals. 

These investigations encompass complex research issues at the molecular, cellular, organism, community and ecosystem levels.
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Environmental Health

The Environmental Health Program investigates how airborne biotoxins impact public health to identify problems and to develop creative ways to disseminate information to educate resource managers, public health officials and the public about the dangers and how they can mitigate adverse impacts.

The Program was a leader in the only long-term study of the effects of Florida’s red tide on human health, a project funded by the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences. The $15.8 million NIEHS project was based on a “beach-to-bedside” model designed to reveal the effects of naturally occurring chemical toxins by incorporating numerous scientific disciplines — everything from medical professionals and oceanographers to chemists and pharmacologists. Research, conducted during field studies, provided new information about the health impacts of red tide biotoxins on humans with and without compromised lung function.

Public education is also a key component of the Environmental Health Program, which has developed innovative technology to disseminate information about red tides through the Beach Conditions Reporting System™.

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Environmental Laboratory of Forensics

The foundation of the Environmental Laboratory of Forensics Program is analytical organic chemistry. This Program is equipped with state-of-the-art automated sample preparation and analytical instrumentation and can identify and quantify more than 200 organic contaminants.

Our Program is expert in detection of petroleum compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, organochlorine pesticides and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. We also analyze fatty acids for health and feeding ecology studies, amino acids for age determination in organisms and develop biomarkers for effects of stressors, both chemical and non-chemical, on marine organisms. Immune function, fertility potential and DNA damage are currently some of the biomarkers that we use to help answer questions about the status of the environment.

By using cutting-edge technology to detect trace levels of persistent organic contaminants, we can evaluate possible effects toxic substances have on marine life — from low-level chronic exposures that could hinder reproduction and development, to acute exposures leading to immediate illness and death.

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Fisheries Habitat Ecology

We focus on how fishes interact with their habitats and how man-made and natural disturbances influence these interactions.

By gaining a better understanding of how fish use their habitats and what happens when things like coastal development or hurricanes occur, we ultimately gain a better understanding of fish populations and how these populations may be affected by these disturbances. Ongoing research also focuses on identifying links between juvenile and adult life stages and between reproduction and recruitment of new fish to juvenile habitats.

The Fisheries Habitat Ecology Program focuses on coastal fishes, ranging from coral reef fishes to economically important sport fish. In all cases, the focal species are tools to learn about coastal ecological processes. Most recently, the focus has been on recreationally important species, including common snook, bonefish, tarpon and permit. All of these are economically important sport fish throughout the Caribbean.

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Manatee Research

In the wild, manatees’ persistence is hampered by slow reproductive rates, deaths from human-related causes like boat strikes and fishing gear entanglement, and even the destruction of habitat — particularly the future access to warm water resources.

For decades, Mote’s Manatee Research Program has been the leading non-governmental center doing quality sirenian research in the U.S., working to answer questions about manatee biology, health and behavior to better understand the species and to inform management decisions and educate the public. Mote also works abroad to develop research and conservation programs in partnership with groups in other countries to help them develop and implement their own sirenian (manatee and dugong) programs.

Mote Manatee Program research studies include photo identification, aerial surveys, genetic sampling and working with our Environmental Laboratory of Forensics to study chemical contaminant levels and the effects of those and other stressors on manatees.
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Marine & Freshwater Aquaculture Research

The Marine Aquaculture Research Program is developing the technologies needed to raise fish species with a high market value and/or a high recreational demand. This Program investigates a variety of marine fish and invertebrates. The information we gain is used to produce fish and invertebrates for restocking depleted species in the wild and to meet our growing national demand for seafood.

The Marine Aquaculture Research Program conducts research at Mote Aquaculture Park in eastern Sarasota County and at our Tropical Research Laboratory in the Florida Keys. We focus on the design and evaluation of inland marine recirculating systems and the culture technology for snook, red drum, Florida pompano, hard corals, long-spined sea urchins and larval foods for marine fish. Past research efforts focused on shrimp for bait and food, queen conch, red snapper and marine ornamental fish.

Given that our oceans have reached their maximum sustainable yield, this projected demand for seafood can only be satisfied by aquaculture production. We believe that recirculating aquaculture systems are one approach to the production of a safe and sustainable seafood supply.

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Marine Biomedical Research

The Marine Biomedical Research Program focuses on basic and applied research working with marine organisms as laboratory animal models.  Areas of interest include biochemistry, physiology, immunology, reproductive biology and embryonic development.

A major research effort in the program is directed at understanding why sharks and their skate and ray relatives have a low incidence of disease, including cancer. The ultimate goal is to use results from these studies to contribute to a better understanding of health problems in higher animals, including humans, and to benefit the wild populations of the particular organisms studied.

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Marine Immunology

The Marine Immunology Program is focused on basic and applied immunological research of marine animals, ranging from cartilaginous fishes  — sharks, skates and rays — to marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as the implications these studies hold for human health.

Basic immunological research with marine species contributes to a better understanding of how the immune systems of different species operate and how these immune functions relate to one another from an evolutionary standpoint. These studies hold the potential for providing important and groundbreaking insights into the evolution of human immunology — as well as treatments for some of our most serious cancers.

The Marine Immunology Program’s applied research studies are providing new knowledge about the immune health status of wild populations of marine animals — including marine mammals — which are exposed to a variety of environmental stresses including man-made and natural contaminants and other environmental stressors. This research is especially important to endangered and threatened species like manatees and sea turtles because reduced immune function can affect a species’ overall ability to survive and reproduce in the wild.
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Marine Microbiology

The Marine Microbiology Program studies microorganisms and their role in the marine environment.

The Program assesses baseline microbial communities associated with healthy and threatened marine organisms and systems to understand the role that microbes play in health and disease, as well as the beneficial factors they provide for overall resilience. Using field assessment and microbiological and molecular techniques, this program examines microbes for antibiotic production, UV resistance and the production of beneficial compounds.

The program has a particular focus on corals and coral reef systems and has shown that bacterial associates of corals protect the host by producing antibiotics and other beneficial compounds/nutrients; that microbial associates communicate with the host and other microbes to order events on the coral surface and that there is likely to be a very complex symbiosis between the coral, zooxanthellae (Symbiodinium spp.) and associated bacteria.
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Marine Stock Enhancement

The Marine Stock Enhancement Program focuses on developing and testing responsible stock enhancement technology and protocols to help restore depleted populations, augment fishery yields and advance basic knowledge about wild stocks.

The Program focuses on developing optimal stocking strategies — based on factors such as fish size, release habitat, timing of releases, magnitude of releases, acclimation measures — and strategies for using conservation hatcheries to help with conservation and restoration of endangered species, such as those found in coral reef communities.

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Ocean Acidification

Worldwide, oceans absorb about one-third of all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can lead to a reduction in pH and dramatic shifts in seawater carbonate chemistry. Studies have shown that ocean water is more acidic now than in pre-industrial times and is predicted to approach levels not seen in millions of years.  This is known as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is expected to impact organisms that depend upon calcium, such as corals and some species of phytoplankton.

The Ocean Acidification Program at Mote was created to research and understand responses of ecologically important species — like corals — to projected levels of ocean acidification. The Program is currently testing methods for using a unique seawater system at Mote’s Tropical Research Laboratory on Summerland Key in the Florida Keys for studies of how corals and other reef species will react to changes in pH levels.
This seawater system includes both flow-through and large mesocosm-based designs. 

Studies that provide advance knowledge of potential climate-driven trends in coral growth and health will permit improved modeling for prediction so that resource managers can act to protect key species and ecosystems. Development of the ocean acidification system at Mote’s Tropical Research Laboratory will provide an optimum global research center for examining and modeling effects of ocean acidification on corals as well as other important estuarine and marine species.

Phytoplankton Ecology

The Phytoplankton Ecology Program studies the makeup of the ocean’s phytoplankton community, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, and the interactions among different micro-algal species. The Program includes a biology group and technology group.  

The biologists focus on phytoplankton ecology at the cellular, community and ecosystem levels with a particular interest in understanding photophysiology and bloom dynamics. One current objective is to establish how Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Florida’s red tide, fits into the succession of micro-algal species along the west coast of Florida.

The technology group focuses on developing better equipment to support the study of phytoplankton and are heavily involved in the engineering, deployment and maintenance of the Optical Phytoplankton Discriminator, also known as the BreveBuster™, an instrument developed at Mote that can, in near-real-time, determine the taxonomic composition of the in situ phytoplankton community. This device has been deployed on buoys, pilings and autonomous underwater vehicles to detect K. brevis and other species.

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Research at Mote Marine Laboratory

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Research Initatives at Mote Marine Laboratory


  • International Consortium for Marine Conservation Science
  • Marine Biomedical, Immunology and Nutraceutical
  • Marine Biotechnology & Ecogenomics
  • Ocean Acidification Impacts on Resiliency & Recovery of Coral Reef Ecosystems
  • Ocean Sensor Technology, Remote Sensing & Telemetry
  • Restoration of Sarasota Bay
  • Sensory Biology & Behavior

An estimated 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survives to maturity to reproduce.
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Since 2005, Mote has tagged more than 120 sea turtles with satellite tags and followed the turtles' journey at sea.
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Staff and volunteers look for evidence of nesting on more than 35 miles of Sarasota County Beaches.

Sea Turtle Conservation & Research

The Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program oversees turtle monitoring activities in Sarasota County and coordinates with county, state and federal efforts to conserve sea turtles — particularly loggerheads — because Sarasota County hosts the highest density of loggerhead nests in the Gulf of Mexico. Mote also aids assessment of beach renourishment projects and places satellite tags on nesting females to track migratory paths and inter-nesting habitat use.

For more than 30 years, the Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program has coordinated conservation efforts for 35 miles of Sarasota County shoreline. Throughout the program's history, we have monitored 52,485 turtle activities, protected 5,388 nests from predators, tagged 4,038 nesting turtles, protected 2,088,865 turtle eggs, and watched1,499,946 hatchlings depart to become a future generation of loggerheads that will return to the region as they reach maturity — in about 30 years. Since 2005, we have satellite tagged more than 120 sea turtles.

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Sensory Biology & Behavior

Mote Marine Laboratory is expanding its existing Sensory Biology and Behavior Program into a new trans-discipline, multi-institutional research initiative in 2012 that will build upon both our past and ongoing research.

By establishing a new initiative that includes multiple research institutions and crosses numerous scientific disciplines, we can undertake potentially transformative research that truly unlocks how animals use their senses to navigate their environments. Studies incorporate sensory biology and behavior research of sharks, turtles, dolphins, manatees, humans and even robots and other forms of artificial intelligence. Creating a better understanding of sensory biology will help us understand how changes in things such as habitat affect species survival in the wild and could even help us apply 'lessons learned' to humans and to developing robots with better artificial intelligence capabilities.

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Shark Biology and Conservation

The Shark Biology and Conservation Program is dedicated to studying the biology, ecology and conservation of sharks and their relatives, the skates and rays. These fishes comprise about 1,000 species worldwide, many of which today are threatened by overfishing and environmental impacts. 

Through laboratory and field research, scientists study the abundance and movement patterns, population dynamics, behavior and health and fisheries biology of sharks and rays, and promote science-based conservation of depleted shark populations.The Program has been a leader in advancing the causes of shark conservation worldwide since 1988, and today emphasizes tri-national initiatives related to shark conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean with scientific colleagues and policy makers in the U.S., Mexico and Cuba.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010, the Program developed and implemented a new research study to assess the spill’s impacts on sharks, rays and other large epipelagic fishes in the Gulf. Conservation efforts include support of the Shark Free Marinas initiative and the Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge.

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Stranding Investigations

The Stranding Investigations Program provides 24-hour response to sick, injured and deceased marine mammals and sea turtles within the coastal waters of Southwest Florida, mainly in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The program also offers logistical support to state biologists in the verification and rescue of sick, injured or deceased manatees, an endangered species living in Florida’s coastal waters.

Stranded cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and sea turtles are recovered and transported to Mote's Dolphin and Whale Hospital or Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital for treatment and release or, in the case of deceased animals, detailed post-mortem examination. The information gathered during necropsy (animal autopsy) helps to evaluate the long-term mortality trends of these species, especially as it relates to pathology or human-related activities. Such research data are crucial to species management and conservation.

Since the program’s creation in 1984, more than 460 cetacean strandings representing nearly 20 species have been recorded. To report a stranded dolphin, whale, manatee or sea turtle within coastal Southwest Florida, please call the Stranding Investigation Program's 24-hour pager: 941-988-0212.
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Today's Research for Tomorrow's Oceans