Apryle Panyi grew up baiting everyone else’s fishing hooks, so when she dug through the squishy, nutrient-rich mud of a tidal flat to unearth worms and other invertebrates during a field trip with Dr. Richard Hager, associate professor of Marine Science, she felt at home.
“I was hooked. Plain and simple,” said Panyi, a senior Marine Science major with a concentration in Marine Biology and a minor in Geology. Not on fishing, but on the worms.
“It was never the fish that grabbed my attention,” said Panyi, of Mount Ephraim, NJ, recalling her childhood. “I was intrigued by the different worms we would use as bait.”
“I used to go around baiting everyone else’s hooks on the docks because I loved touching the worms,” she recalled.
Panyi chose Stockton because she always knew she wanted to be a marine biologist, but she had her fears. “I never thought I could make much of a career or it would be worthwhile to pursue an interest in invertebrates—worms specifically,” she explained.
Dr. Hager and his Marine Science field trips quelled her fear, and she set out to gain as much hands-on experience with marine invertebrates as possible.
Panyi is the Marine Science Club scuba chair and works at The Dive Shop in Voorhees, NJ. Through the shop, she has gone on a shark dive and various shipwreck dives.
With adjunct instructor Jacalyn Toth Sullivan, she studied the relationship between Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and a barnacle that adheres to their fins.
At the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine she volunteered to care for the seals, which involved monitoring the mammals for parasitic worms.
Panyi spent a portion of winter break in Bocas del Toro, Panama, where she snorkeled and dived to find the magnificent feather duster, a flamboyant species of marine worm that lives on and near coral reefs.
The stationary worm cements its tube to a surface and feather-like radioles shoot out to filter the water column for food. Panyi’s research project, funded by the Distinguished Student Fellowship program, the Stockton Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program and Dean Dennis Weiss of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, focused on tube repair rates, density and crown spread size.
The magnificent feather duster is an important species in maintaining the health of a reef ecosystem through filter feeding. Coral reefs are popular tourism attractions, provide protection to the mainland, offer a food source for humans and fish, are used as a building material in some countries and have medicinal possibilities, explained Panyi.
“Discovering the rate at which the worm repairs its tube is important to show that the tube can be repaired and to discover how long the organism is busy expending energy on a task other than filtering,” she said.
Panyi worked with worms inhabiting two different reef habitats that vary in proximity to land, the ocean, mangroves and Bocas del Toro, and in sediment type. She created small and large holes in the tubes of some worms and left others in her study untouched. Flags were placed to mark the sites where she treated various worms, so she could return every day to take photos of the healing progress. Using imaging software, she measured the size of the holes in the images to document how long it took for the holes to close.
While in Panama, howler monkeys in the nearby forest were her alarm clock. And every morning and evening, a colorful cloud of parrots flew overhead on their way to and from their roosts.
Trip highlights included a hike through the Cloud Forest, seeing four sloths and a capuchin monkey, and crawling into a bat cave to observe hundreds of bats clinging to the ceiling. On night hikes, she saw lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, frogs, insects and giant land crab burrows. “It was kind of scary, but cool,” she said.
“I am thankful and happy for the experience,” she said, noting that there was a lot of work and that she received a lot of support from her advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Lacey, assistant professor of Marine Science.
“Apryle’s dedication to her innovative project in Panama, despite a multitude of setbacks, only hints at the great scientist she is becoming through the consistent hard work fueled by her inquisitive mind,” said Lacey.