Which one of these things is still alive? You may not know it from the haggard state of the sea fan coral on the left, but it’s not dead yet! The lobster, however, is belly-up.
This difference matters because the sea fan may make a comeback. And because corals are so integral for marine ecosystems, it matters to biologists like me trying to study ocean health. It also matters for the people who like to swim on reefs, drive boats, and eat seafood. Given the size of the crowds visiting the local reefs on the weekend, that’s a lot of people.
I took these photos on our first dive last week – kicking off the 2015 field season! I’m focusing on these two photos for the inaugural blog post because these types of images are where it all starts – sick oysters, a die-off of sea stars, declining coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Thus begins a marine mystery. In each of these examples, the ailing animals turned out to be in the midst of a marine disease mystery. That’s right in my wheelhouse as a disease ecologist. Of course, there are other causes of poor health and death. At the beginning, we don’t know what we’re looking at- and that brings us back to the uncertainty depicted in the photos above. Is this a disease outbreak or not?
We’re beyond this early questioning phase in research on Caribbean sea fans. In fact, some of the diseases I study have clear signs, like the purple pox on the sea fans. But there’s a lot more to find out! For the third year now, I’m basing my research out of the University of Puerto Rico’s marine station. I’ll be working with Dr. Ernesto Weil (UPRM), Phillip Fargo (Cornell), and others to survey 15 reefs and run a lab experiment.
As a result of my research in 2013 and 2014 (see previous blog posts), we now know that the purple pox appear on many of the sea fans. We also know more about how the disease works. These findings are critical since the pathogen showed up in Puerto Rico relatively recently and was certainly a marine mystery of its own. I’ve also found that interactions between environmental stressors affect sea fan disease and immunity, which underscores that single stressors cannot be considered in isolation.
This year, we’ll repeat the surveys at the same 15 sites in order to compare disease prevalence and immune function between years. I’m excited to look at coinfection in the laboratory experiment by testing how two different sea fan pathogens affect each other and the host’s immune response.
We have an important job to do here, BUT we see so many cool things in the midst of a project that it’s a shame not to share them. This is the motivation behind the “Dose of Disease” series I’ll be posting this summer. In addition to some updates on our research, I’ll talk about the ideas that pop into our heads when we catch something out of the corner of our eye, the weird things we want to know more about, …
…. the little questions that may actually be the BIG questions.