Go to a mudflat in the Lowcountry during low tide, and you’ll see eastern mud snails plodding along on the surface. About the size of the end of a thumb, these snails have a disproportionate influence on their community.

“The eastern mud snail dramatically affects other species,” says Craig Plante, professor of biology. “I wanted to study the snails’ effect on microorganisms using modern technology, as the last studies were from the 1980s and are quite crude. Now with current technology, we can delve deeper into the biology of the snail.”

two students collect mud snails from mudflats for research

Kristina Hill-Spanik and Timara Vereen collect specimens from units in the mudflats near Grice Marine Laboratory.

Plante submitted an abstract to study the impact eastern mud snails have on benthic or sedimentary microalgae and bacteria. He wanted to discover what snails do to affect their community’s food and nutrition and the geochemical cycles. He received a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant funded by the National Science Foundation and then searched for a student researcher to partner with him.

When Timara Vereen, an Honors College student double-majoring in biology and psychology and minoring in chemistry, saw the opportunity for the summer of 2021, her first instinct was that she might not be qualified.

“I knew I wanted to work in a lab, so I decided to take a chance and apply,” says Vereen, who was thrilled to be accepted for the project. “I learned that you just don’t know what’s possible until you try. I encourage everyone to put themselves out there and take advantage of opportunities.”

Together with Kristina Hill-Spanik, molecular core facility lab manager for the Department of Biology, Plante and Vereen began the arduous process of setting up 20 2-foot tall galvanized cages divided into units to study the snail’s impact on the ecosystem. They set up three different scenarios to study: one of snails doing what they do naturally, another without any snails and a third with 190 snails per study unit. They did all this while keeping close track of the tides.

Fortunately, the College’s proximity to the mudflats at Grice Marine Lab made their work a little easier.

“Access is key to research,” says Plante. “Mudflats are a pretty physical endeavor. First, we had to determine how to transport the equipment out to the flats, and then we had to go out many times. Fortunately, at Grice, the mudflats were only 200 yards away from our office.”

mud snails in pluff mud

The study focuses on the impact of the eastern mud snail on microorganisms. (Photos by Darcie Goodwin)

Over three weeks, the team trudged out to the mudflats, often getting waist-deep in pluff mud to gather sediment samples. They would then test for chlorophyll (microalgal biomass), organic matter and erosion rates to study the impact on the unit’s algae and bacteria and their functions.

This year, through a School of Sciences and Mathematics Summer Research Award, Plante, Hill-Spanik and Vereen are continuing their research with a focus on DNA. Vereen is conducting bioinformatics computations and data-science coding in order to identify the species of microbes and compare them among the three different scenarios.

“There’s a lot going on,” says Vereen. “Everything is connected, which is why we are doing the work. When we finish the bioinformatics, we’ll be able to figure out what’s going on in the communities in relation to their composition and diversity, and which organisms are more predominate given the number of mud snails as well as any effects to ecosystem function.”

Vereen, who received the East Cooper Outboard Motor Scholarship and Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation Scholarship among others, will be using the results of her research for her bachelor thesis. She has also presented her findings to the REU and at the College’s Expo 2022.

As for her plans after graduation, Vereen aims to obtain her Ph.D. in biological sciences and become a behavioral ecologist. Of course, her work will include her passion – research.