Horseshoe Crab Event Honors Dr. Jennifer Mattei, Founder of Project Limulus

Jennifer Mattei crouches down in field of dead grass to tag a horseshoe crab by hand.
Mattei tagging a horseshoe crab at Long Wharf Harbor in New Haven in 2006 (Photo/Richard Howard for the Long Island Sound Study)

As part of International Horseshoe Crab Day on June 20, Sacred Heart University and Project Limulus will be hosting a horseshoe tagging event and talk in honor of  Jennifer Mattei, a long-time professor at Sacred Heart University who died in December at the age of 62. Mattei’s projects to restore shoreline habitats and protect wildlife, including the horseshoe crab, have played an outsized role in Long Island Sound restoration efforts.

The event will be held at noon at Stratford Point in Stratford, CT, and is part of a series of horseshoe crab events being held in Connecticut this month. They are timed to the season when horseshoe crabs arrive on the beaches from the Sound to spawn. Information about the events, including community monitoring to count horseshoe crab populations, are on the Sacred Heart University website.

Mattei established Project Limulus in the 1990s to conduct research, monitor populations, and raise awareness of the American Horseshoe Crab, Limulus polyphemus in Latin. They are a vitally important species to coastal ecosystems that are older than the dinosaurs, but are now in decline.

Globally, Mattei served as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Horseshoe Crab Specialists Group working to protect and conserve horseshoe crabs.  Locally, her work at Project Limulus helped in efforts to tag over 98,000 horseshoe crabs to better understand their patterns of movement and track their abundance. She was an early supporter of community science by inviting volunteers to participate in population counts of the horseshoe crabs on local beaches and reporting the tagged horseshoe crabs they saw to Project Limulus. Through this initiative, she also gave public lectures on the importance of the species to the ecosystem to thousands of people.

Several high school students sit at tables and turn to face and listen to a woman wearing a green shirt addressing the group.
On February 22, 2012, a group of Bridgeport High School students visited Sacred Heart University to learn about Project Limulus,.(Photo/Tracy Deer-Mirek)

Mattei  also  was a well-respected teacher at Sacred Heart who played a key role in developing the school’s coastal & marine science major, and she chaired the biology department from 2003 to 2009. She mentored dozens of undergraduate and graduate research students, and recruited many students to participate in her research. Collectively, her students delivered more than 75 presentations at internal, national and regional research conferences and received at least five awards. Many of her students went on to pursue careers in science and education. Citing her roles as a dedicated teacher, Sacred Heart University this year awarded her the status of professor emerita.

“Jennifer was extremely passionate about the conservation and restoration of the natural world and about inspiring and educating the next generation of scientists,” said Jo-Marie Kasinak, a former student of Mattei who is now the director of Project Limulus. “She was a huge supporter of undergraduate research, and developed courses that allowed her students to participate in scientific research and present their findings at local conferences.”

Mattei received her Ph.D in Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University in 1994. Her first project that received wide attention occurred when she was a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University in the 1990s. She was part of a team of scientists to successfully restore coastal woody shrub habitats on top of closed sections of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, the largest landfill in the U.S. at the time. Mattei continued her Fresh Kills research with a five-year National Science Foundation grant to study the plant and animal interactions at the site after she joined the Sacred Heart faculty in 1997, the same year she started Project Limulus.  

In 2013, Mattei started a new project that bridged a gap between restoring and protecting habitats for wildlife such as horseshoe crabs and responding to the impact of sea level rise and climate change along the coast. With support from a Long Island Sound Futures Fund Grant, Mattei conducted a pilot project to install concrete reef balls just off the shoreline at Stratford Point. The reef balls, which are pocketed with holes, are normally used to mimic natural oyster reefs. They provide a structure for oysters to attach to and grow. But in this project Mattei focused on using the reef balls to dampen the impact of strong waves from eroding the shoreline and drowning a newly planted saltmarsh grass restoration. The project succeeded, indicating that nature-based “living shoreline projects” can be used to adapt to storm surges and higher tides that are likely to occur due to climate change.  Since Mattei initiated the concept more than a dozen living shoreline projects in Connecticut and New York portions of the Long Island Sound watershed have been completed, are underway, or are planned.  

While she published many academic papers, Mattei focused a lot of her attention to educating the public about the beauty of nature near where they lived. In an article that appeared in the fall 2022 Sacred Heart University magazine, Mattei expressed to the magazine’s readers that environmental preservation in the age of climate change impacts should be considered the highest priority for everyone’s involvement. She wrote optimistically that the scientific community will successfully address this problem, but needed the involvement of individuals as well, even if it starts modestly through simple actions such as planting a tree in a backyard.  

“Certain as our dependence on the natural world is, it’s a wonder there is any question over what a priority its preservation should be,” she wrote. “Environmental stewardship is not a hobby or a ‘pet project.’ It’s an existential imperative.”

Kasinak hopes people remember Mattei’s passion for protecting the environment and her tenacity in fighting for what she believed. “She had a way of bringing out the best in those around her and worked to help them reach their full potential,” said Kasinak. “She was instrumental in shaping me into the scientist and educator I am today.”

More on Mattei’s work

Biology Professor Jennifer Mattei at Stratford Point in August 2022 in a photo that appeared in the Sacred Heart University Magazine (Photo/ Tracy Deer-Mirek. Sacred Heart University)Project Limulus | Sacred Heart University

LISS Project Limulus slideshow (a photographer for the Long Island Sound Study spent a day with Mattei and her students to watch horseshoe crab monitoring.

Stratford Point Living Shoreline Project

“Our Natural World” Dr. Mattei’s last article which appeared in the Sacred Heart University magazine.

To honor Dr. Mattei’s legacy, the Sacred Heart University Department of Biology is creating The Jennifer H. Mattei Scholarship for Undergraduate Research. This scholarship will provide undergraduate students with stipends to conduct research in Connecticut with a biology faculty member in the fields of ecology, coastal management and restoration or other biological studies involving Long Island Sound, and to support Project Limulus and related ecological research.  The University is reaching out to the community, through a crowd-funding site, to establish an endowed fund in Jennifer’s memory that will exist in perpetuity.

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