It’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 . . .
Last 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.
The 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.
Getting 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]