Baseline Caribbean

New expedition: Curaçao February 20th

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The Baseline Caribbean team is gearing up for another expedition, this time to the sparkling, cerulean seas of the Netherlands Antilles in the Southern Caribbean.

Reefs on these Dutch Islands are in relatively good shape when compared to the rest of the Caribbean. But what were they like in the past?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that sharks were once abundant around these islands, yet empirical data are desperately needed to guide management. Reef fish communities are overfished today, but by how much? When did coral communities begin to deteriorate, and did it depend on their proximity to historical settlements?

To get at these questions and more, we plan to collect nearly a ton of sediment from modern and fossil reefs along the southwest coast of Curaçao. We also hope to get the chance to explore Klein Curaçao — a 1.7-square-kilometer uninhabited island just southeast of its big sister and namesake.

Instead of reading about the results in a stale journal in two years’ time, experience science in action. Beginning February the 20th, join us with daily posts, photos, and short videos from the field on the Baseline Caribbean science blog.

This expedition builds on our previous exploits in Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic. We see familiar faces return: Erin Dillon (who recently hightailed it to the McCauley Lab), faithful malacologist Felix Rodriguez and ring-leader Aaron O’Dea. We are also joined by some fresh blood in the form of fish ecologist and evolutionary biologist Michele Pierotti and STRI videographer extraordinaire  Ana Endara.

A huge Thank You to our supporters who will make it possible: The Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity field station (CARMABI) who kindly gave us a Research Prize, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and YOU! – the generous donors who contributed to our crowd-funding campaign. Stay tuned…!

 

 

 

 

Coring Caribbean reefs

Alongside our work examining the relative abundances of coral and mollusc skeletons, shark dermal denticles, sponge spicules and fish otoliths in large tracts of exposed mid-Holocene reefs, we have also been collaborating with Drs. Katie Cramer and Richard Norris (Scripps) to explore sequential changes in Caribbean reef ecosystems by extracting reef matrix cores in Belize and Bocas del Toro, Panama. We collected more than twenty 6m long aluminium cores from several lagoonal fringing reefs that capture reef ecosystem conditions going back the last couple of thousand years.

See more about the approach in this little video

Nicte-Ha’s farewell!

Earlier this year, the coral project was set. The research question was clear, the samples – the key to the question – were at hand, and I was making good progress. But the coral team had only one member: me. This was not great because I love working in teams and to learn new stuff. How best to learn if not by teaching?

Potential interns had shown interest in working in the lab. Not always, however, this works well for the intern or researchers. It is hard to find a good match. Then, a young woman emailed Aaron. Shortly after, she was standing in front of us. “Gosh! Nicte-Ha is very determined”, I initially thought. And she was.

On day one, Nicte-Ha said that she aimed to find a research job in Bocas del Toro. We were sitting hundreds of kilometers from Bocas, but for Nicte-Ha, we were pretty close. A few hours after she analyzed the last sample in our lab, she headed off to Bocas del Toro.

What do you think happened between day one and the last sample she analyzed? Success! That is what determined people consistently get. Just to name a few of her achievements, Nicte-Ha learned fast and taught others, analyzed hundreds of kilograms of coral samples, developed and presented a poster at a conference, and was actively engaged in the daily life and discussions of our scientific community. More than anything, she got a special place in everyone’s heart.

Thank you, Nicte-Ha. Today we see you leave, moving in the direction you chose. We are happy and proud.

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Nicte-Ha Muñoz presents a poster in APANAC.

Great news from the coral team!

The coral team has great news to share: one reef from Bocas del Toro may be a bright spot! This blog explains what a bright spot is, why it is important and where we may have found one.

Coral reefs are declining worldwide but not all of them are in bad shape. Bright spots are, among coral reefs, those reefs that are in better condition than expected given the environmental and socio-economic conditions they are exposed to (Cinner et al. 2016). If we can learn why bright spots are different, we may be able to improve degraded reefs. But first we need to identify bright spots! And we may have found one in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

To do this, we became time-travelers! We compared (fossil) reef corals that lived in Bocas del Toro around 7 000 years ago (figure 1a) with (subrecent) reefs corals that have lived here over the past few decades (figure 1b). We measured the amount and type of reef corals both in fossil and subrecent reefs. From this data we are learning how reefs changed since substantial human impact began.

Our preliminary results show that one reef from Bocas del Toro, Punta Caracol, is a potential bright spot. Compared to other subrecent reefs, Punta Caracol is exposed to similar environmental conditions and human pressures but it seems substantially healthier. In fact, it is almost identical to the pristine reefs that lived in the region 7 000 years ago.

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Figure 1. When fossil (a) and modern (b) reefs from Bocas del Toro are compared, Punta Caracol is outstanding, likely a bright spot. It is healthier than other subrecent reefs and similar to pristine reefs that lived in Bocas 7 000 years ago.

Our next step is to refine this exciting finding. We plan to precisely describe how Punta Caracol is special. For example,

  • What type of corals drive the difference between Punta Caracol and other subrecent reefs?
  • What are the key similarities between Punta Caracol and the pristine reefs that lived in Bocas del Toro 7 000 years ago?

We will let you know what we find out!

If you love sharks… three days left

$3000 to go with just three days remaining! If you think sharks are cool, consider donating just $5 to support our cause. Also, please share our project campaign across your social media and friend networks. We’ll need to reach our goal to receive the funds, and our field work won’t be possible without your support. We can make this happen!

You can support our work and learn more about the project here.

Denticle SEMs colored

It’s Melisa’s farewell

Today we say farewell to Melisa! Because she has done great and has big plans ahead, we want to celebrate.

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Melisa never gets stuck (except this one time)!

During her three-month internship, Melisa was outstandingly productive. For example, she (a) identified over a hundred kilograms of tiny coral fragments, (b) planned a fieldtrip, (c) reviewed literature, (d) developed a guide and a reference collection to identify coral skeletons, (e) wrote an abstract and produced a conference poster, (f) presented interesting topics at multiple lab meetings, (g) attended to multiple scientific seminars and (h) organized the research collection of the coral team. And most importantly, Melisa connected personally with everyone she met. She is easy going, kind, and respectful.

But the semester starts soon so she has to go back to college. For her farewell, we gave Melisa a little present and took her out to lunch. The restaurant we chose was Napoli’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, a place that has hosted the special occasions of the O’Dea lab and its scientific family, including the legendary Tony Coats and Jeremy Jackson, over decades.

The coral team, the O’Dea lab and many others at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute will remember and miss her a lot. Because she is smart, positive and hard working, Melisa will never hit a roof. So I am confident this is only the beginning of something even bigger and better.

Melisa, we wish you the best because you deserve it!

Lab note #1: preliminary observations from Curaçao

A new lab note has been posted for our crowdfunding campaign, which shares some preliminary observations from Curaçao made during our trip last year. You can check it out here!

We’re 25% funded with 19 days to go! Thanks to all of our backers so far. This field work will not be possible unless we reach our funding goal.

N. brevirostris_body_245x, scale 100um

Denticle of the day: Scanning electron microscope image of a lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) denticle at 245x magnification. Scale = 100 micrometers.

 

 

 

Week 1 crowdfunding campaign update

Thanks to everybody who donated during the first week of our crowdfunding campaign! We really appreciate your support. Every little bit counts, and we’ll need to reach our goal of $4,000 in the next three weeks to receive the funds for our next field work mission. Again, please check out our project at experiment.com/sharkskin and share it with your friends and colleagues. This campaign will help us uncover the history of sharks on reefs in Curaçao and keep the ‘Baseline Caribbean’ blog posts rolling.

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Coral reef challenge crowdfunding campaign: starting August 23

Yesterday evening, Aaron and I launched a crowdfunding campaign as part of Experiment.com’s Coral Reef Challenge. We are raising money to support our upcoming field work in Curaçao, which will supplement an award we received at the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean scientific meeting last year. You can check out our campaign’s page and learn more about what we’re planning to do at experiment.com/sharkskin. The campaign participating in this challenge with the most donors by September 13 will win an additional $1000, and our campaign will run for a total of 30 days. We must raise at least our goal of $4000 to receive the funds. We’ll need your support to reach this goal and keep the blog posts flowing as we collect more samples for the Baseline Caribbean project. Donors will receive a shoutout on our Baseline Caribbean blog as we report live from the field, so keep an eye out in February. Thank you in advance for your support!

-Erin