Off the coast of the Florida Keys, Dr. J. Antonio Baeza in the Department of Biological Sciences and members of his Marine Conservation and Genetics Creative Inquiry team dive among corals in search of Caribbean spiny lobsters.
Baeza and his Creative Inquiry team discovered a new species of parasitic worm last year that inhabits the egg mass brooded by female lobsters and appears to feed on their eggs. Preliminary data collected by the team suggests that the presence of the worm diminishes the female lobster’s fecundity, or reproductive potential. The group actively samples lobsters to increase their understanding of the parasite’s biology, its effect on the lobster host population and on the landings of this heavily exploited species.
Since the 1970s, the majority of the world’s fish stocks have been in danger due to overfishing. In coastal areas especially, there are large fisheries targeting species that we know little about, which can harm local ecosystems in unknown ways. In addition, the advent of climate change and predatory parasites only serve to put more pressure on marine populations in coastal ecosystems. Baeza’s lab studies some of these at-risk species during the summer season with the help of their Creative Inquiry students. "In the lab, I want my students to get involved in all the stages of scientific research, all the way from working on the bench, to diving, to analyzing data, to writing, and to presenting a poster at a scientific meeting,” Baeza said.
The group collects data on the reproductive biology and life histories of marine organisms targeted by fisheries in an effort to provide information that can help federal and state entities to properly manage those species and prevent them from collapsing. Baeza identified the Florida Keys as a hotspot for his marine research due to its several biodiversity issues. Without this research to understand these at-risk fish populations, many species could suffer further population declines. As a result, this would negatively impact the environment and human populations dependent upon them. The undergraduate students on the Creative Inquiry team also help generate data that aides marine conservation in biodiversity hotspots like the Caribbean Sea.
Students in Baeza’s Creative Inquiry team begin their research by learning how to distinguish males from females in crab, shrimp and lobster species in the laboratory, and to properly measure female fecundity, egg size and reproductive output in these species. For Rami Major, a sophomore genetics major, the work she does in the Creative Inquiry allows her to gain experience in marine biology that she wouldn’t have gained otherwise. “This team has been a cool way to keep something that has been interesting to me in my life, without having to change my major from genetics to environmental science,” Major said. Major plans on presenting a poster on her Creative Inquiry in years to come.
Although working with marine species far from the coast produces a challenge for the team, they manage to generate relevant genetic and morphological information about aquatic life to continue improving our understanding about the biodiversity of the Florida Keys. “To me, one way of measuring the success of the Creative Inquiry is to publish a paper with my team that will help to solve, in a minor or major way, a marine conservation problem, either at a local or global scale,” Baeza said. Striving toward this goal to reduce pressures on essential marine species will allow a group of Clemson students to become a part of the solution to an ecological crisis while learning more of marine biology.