Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration: Jan Landsberg

Landsberg studies diseases and events that affect the health of Florida's fish and wildlife species.

Jan Landsberg

Jan Landsberg
Research Scientist: Fish and Wildlife Health
St. Petersburg, FL

BSc, Zoology – Exeter University (England), 1975
PhD, Biology – London University (England), 1981

I am a research scientist in the Fish and Wildlife Health (FWH) subsection and have been with the agency since October 1989. From 1982 to 1987, I worked at the Fish Disease Laboratory in Nir-David, Israel. From 1988 to 1989, I conducted aquatic animal health research at the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

At FWRI, I have been involved in diverse projects and investigations, primarily focused on animal or environmental health. I have investigated, or helped investigate, disease and mortality (death) events affecting Florida’s aquatic animals and plants, including seagrass, corals, shellfish, fish, sea turtles, birds and marine mammals. I have also provided health support to the FWC’s aquaculture and stock enhancement operations and conducted research on the effects of harmful algal blooms (HABs) on aquatic organisms, with potential implications for public health. I have authored or co-authored more than 70 peer-reviewed papers or book chapters on aquatic animal health or HABs.

What are you working on now? 
My biggest project at the moment is being the FWRI lead for the investigation of the manatee, pelican and bottlenose dolphin die-off in the Indian River Lagoon. We have put together a diverse multiagency team to investigate possible environmental factors and assess how the multispecies die-off might be one end result of the large-scale seagrass die-off that followed a HAB in the Indian River Lagoon. This is a very challenging case of environmental CSI!

I have several other ongoing projects. One is a statewide multipartner survey of diseases and pathogens (germs) of amphibians and bats funded by a State Wildlife Grant. In another, I’m working with colleagues in Fisheries-Independent Monitoring and FWH to assess possible health effects of contaminants on fish in Tampa Bay. This project is funded through a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. I am also participating on the FWC climate change marine and freshwater teams; writing a nationwide review, with collaborators, on the documentation of blue-green algae poisonings in dogs; and representing the agency on the Governors’ South Atlantic Alliance. I also serve on NOAA’s National Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events, which provides guidance during the investigation of nationwide events, as well as those occurring in Florida.

How is this information beneficial? 
For the Indian River Lagoon investigation, once we can determine the causes of the mortalities, we can assess to what extent we can make management recommendations to prevent or minimize this from occurring again. Developing potential remedies may require working with a range of stakeholders and other agencies. Depending on the cause, or the magnitude of the potential factors involved, there may or may not be an easy solution. Either way, these events alert us to possible negative factors in the environment, and reinforce the need to assess if there are ways we can improve environmental health. In turn, this may help us protect and save animals – in this case, manatees, dolphins and birds. Was the cause a result of human activity? If so, then what can we do to determine why and what can we do about it?

What is your typical work day like? 
Very busy and usually exhilarating, if I’m not bogged down by too much paperwork or unforeseen emergencies. During an event, such as an aquatic animal die-off, things are pretty hectic and the work day can be very long. Depending on where we are in the investigation, I could be doing a mixture of field and lab work, collecting and working up samples (animal or environmental), tracking diagnostic results and making sure we are covering all the bases by mapping the data, connecting with our many partners to get information and data, responding to information requests, holding conference calls and so on. If there isn’t an event going on (or I am juggling days in-between), then I am making sure grants are on track, writing papers or proposals, catching up on data analysis and write up, handling information requests and giving talks.

What is your greatest career accomplishment? 
I am torn between two things. One was to publish a 200-plus-page review on the “Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms on Aquatic Organisms” in a peer-reviewed journal in 2002. It took years to produce, but the review has been a useful resource for many scientists and managers around the world and is still used frequently today – a quick look at Google Scholar shows it has been cited in 563 papers. The second took several years to investigate, but also started in 2002. I was the agency lead on an investigation of human illness from consuming puffer fish caught in the Indian River Lagoon. I coordinated a multiagency team that identified, for the first time in the U.S., that saxitoxin was produced by the harmful algal species Pyrodinium bahamense, and was the source of the poisonings. The appearance of saxitoxin in Florida was a big deal and caught us by surprise, especially because this toxin can be fatal to people. Because of this event, the state had to close the pufferfish fishery in the Indian River Lagoon and, to this day, monitors shellfish beds to ensure they are not contaminated with the dangerous toxin.

What are some of your biggest challenges? 
Recognizing that as an individual scientist, or even when working with scientists in other FWC divisions and other agencies, not all aspects of various issues can be tackled at once. There are many Florida fish and wildlife issues that need to be addressed, and as Florida’s resident and visitor populations increase, there will be more. So the biggest challenge is to see the big picture and compartmentalize it for meaningful study and results; this helps determine where the resource could benefit the most and where you can best contribute your expertise.

What do you like most about your career? 
The challenge of solving unexplained mortality and disease events, identifying causes and ways in which our aquatic environment is affected, and hoping that each of us contributes in some small way to make this a cleaner, healthier place for the natural resources for which we are stewards. And hopefully, we will leave it in decent shape for the grandchildren. Ever since I have been at FWRI, I have, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to do research and play a tiny role in the advancement of science, to be the first to discover a new species, and to not know what is coming next. I have never really viewed it as work.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not? 
Yes. I was always interested in biology and animals, but at the age of 3 – growing up in the city of London – of course, I had no knowledge of potential career paths that could lead to my current position with FWRI.                                                 

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science? 
Writing books, doing forensics, digging up old ruins or bones, and traveling.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Go for it. The competition may be really tough, but if science, research and caring about the environment is what makes you tick and is enough motivation in itself to make you want to go to work every day (rather than it being “just another day job”), then do whatever it takes to get there. Be prepared to travel far and wide, and don’t hesitate to work on any topic at whatever level it takes to get your foot in the door somewhere. Don’t give up.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 
What free time? I suppose in “official free time,” I like to write and read (and fill up the house with) books – no electronic PDFs allowed. I also travel as much as possible, swim, ride horses, garden, go antiquing or rummage around markets or second hand stores (books again), watch countless good movies (but usually not TV, except news), and pester the cat. I am always researching some new project or dreaming up new ideas for a book. In fact, my first adventure book for teens and adults, “The Curse of the Crystal Kuatzin,” will be published soon!

FWC Facts:
Florida's Lake Trafford is the southernmost black crappie fishery in the United States.

Learn More at AskFWC