Back from the wilds

reef.jpgIt’s been a quiet week here at the Natural Patriot. But I have a good excuse.  As occasionally happens — all too rarely — I managed to break the chains and achieve escape velocity from the office and computer and telephone to return briefly to what I got into this business for in the first place.  For the first time in a long while, I have actually been doing what I earned my merit badge in, so to speak — marine biological research.

And, man, is it sweet.   Warm water, brilliant sun, no telephone, turquoise shallows promising mysterious creatures, deep blue ocean swell, no e-mail, tropical breezes, no committee meetings, traveling by open boat, diving in (did I mention no meetings?), dead in the water with a broken steering mechanism.  Well, everything comes with a price . . .

stri_bocas.jpgLast night I returned from almost a week (not like the old days of a month or three, but nevertheless) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Bocas del Toro field station on the Caribbean coast of Panama, near the Costa Rican border.  There I am beginning a new project with Dr. Kristin Hultgren, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian, on the biogeography and evolutionary ecology of symbiotic reef shrimp. 

zuzalpheus_brooksi.jpgThe project involves a unique and fascinating group of tiny, obscure shrimp that I’ve spent an inordinate part of my adult life puzzling over (bear with me — it’s less pathetic than it sounds).  The critters live within the Swiss cheese-like internal canals of living coral-reef sponges, which in turn live among the branches of corals such as those pictured below.  Despite their retiring habits, and their excruciatingly challenging taxonomy, the sponge-dwelling shrimps have turned out to provide fascinating insights into several fundamental problems in ecology and evolution.  Perhaps most importantly, they include the only know “eusocial” animals in the sea, that is, living in cooperative colonies with a single breeding queen and a large group — up to 350 in some species — of “helpers” who defend the colony from intruders.  If interested, you can download a teaching PowerPoint on the social shrimp here (scroll down and click on the red text).  This curious phenomenon was featured in the “Coral Seas” episode of the BBC’s fabulous Blue Planet documentary, which we helped film in Belize some years ago.

Another intriguing feature of the group is their extreme host specificity.  Many species live within only one or a few species of sponges throughout their geographic range.  This specialization raises many interesting questions about why they would adopt such a counterintuitive lifestyle, but also makes them a very promising model system for investigating general questions about how the wildly high levels of biodiversity in tropical environments such as coral reefs originate and are maintained.  This is the focus of our current project, which began humbly in Bocas last week and will involve field work in Jamaica, Curacao, and probably Barbados over the coming year or so, sponsored by the National Geographic Society.  

reef_bocas_jon_norenburg.bmpGetting out again into the kaleidoscopic world of the reef, seeing the fish and waving seagrasses and colorful sponges, provides an important reminder of what Natural Patriotism is ultimately all about, and a gut-level emotional sense of what is at stake in all our sometimes ethereal conversations about transitions to renewable energy and zero-net-impact buildings and so on.  That stuff is critically important, but it is just a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  The real prize we are shooting for is the hope that our kids and their kids will be able to experience these unique and incomparable creatures and landscapes as we have had the fortune of doing.

[The reef photo at bottom is by Dr. Jon Norenburg at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History]

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Oceans. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Back from the wilds

  1. kevin z says:

    I can’t believe kristin is your postdoc! Thats so cool, she was my inverts TA at Davis and gave me a C in the lab because I forgot to do all the drawings. I was too busy looking under the scope for the little stuff to be bothered with making mere drawings…

    Give her a big tentacley wave for me. Your guys’ project is way cool. Its those kinds of systems that make me consider getting back into shallow waters to carry out field experiments, something that is very difficult to do in the deep sea.

    Oh and kudos for using the open access option on Zootaxa! I’m having issues with reviewers at journal-to-not-be-named-until-as-of-now-4-month-long-review is done.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Hi Kevin. I’m sure Kristin would be proud of you! Don’t worry — I hear that Einstein flunked out of some of his elementary math classes (I am of course not advocating a casual approach to classes — hopefully none of my grad students are reading this).

    Buying open access for an 89-page article at Zootaxa was a pretty tough pill to swallow, financially speaking. But since the shrimp live primarily in Central America and the Caribbean, where many students and marine biologists don’t have easy access to such journals, it seemed the appropriate thing to do.

  3. Jim Walker says:

    Love your site. Don’t see a problem with figuring out how the small shrimp fit in the scheme of things. I suspect that if someone had watched Einstein scribbling away about 1904 in his patent office they might have thought it was pretty pathetic…

    Intend to bookmark your site for reference on how the shrimp are doing.

    Jim Walker