Michelle is from Orlando, Florida, and received a B.S. in Biology from the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 2016. After completing her undergraduate studies, Michelle worked in the Coastal and Estuarine Ecology Lab at UCF as a lead field technician until 2018. During that time, she led field research on avian community structure and behavior, and long-term ecological monitoring on restored oyster reefs and shorelines in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), FL. In the spring of 2019, 

Michelle Shaffer is in the third year of her dissertation research, and is a 3rd year fellow of the Forage Fish Research Program. Her research investigates trophic interactions of Indian River Lagoon (IRL) food webs, a 250 km-long estuarine ecosystem situated along the central and southeast coast of Florida. Many economically important species use IRL habitat for spawning, foraging, and shelter. However, the IRL faces both natural and anthropogenic pressures including sea level rise, wastewater and fertilizer run off, and loss of habitat through urbanization. Little is known about how these compounding pressures will impact trophic interactions and population dynamics within IRL food webs. Michelle’s research evaluates the impact of these pressures on food webs at various spatial and temporal scales, and at different levels of complexity, from species level to the food web as a whole.


Specifically, the first chapter of her dissertation examines the influence of abiotic variables and seagrass habitat on predator and forage fish abundance, with particular emphasis on the reduction of seagrass habitat after the 2011 harmful algal bloom. This research will help IRL resource managers understand how the regular occurrence of harmful algal blooms and associated decline of seagrass meadows may affect recreationally important predators. In her second and third dissertation chapters, Michelle utilizes archeological data from the IRL to better understand changes in community structure and ecosystem resilience over time. First, she will compare present-day ecological communities to historic (~1,500 years ago) ecological communities using multivariate analyses. Then Michelle will evaluate the resilience and other ecosystem-level metrics of present-day and historic ecosystems, by building the first food web models for the IRL. She will use compound-specific stable isotope analysis and bulk stable isotope analysis of present-day and historic fish vertebrae to help tune the food web models. By providing context to how the estuarine communities have changed over longer time scales (>500 years), IRL resource managers can better evaluate what can be considered an historic ‘healthy’ status within the system.