05 November 2018

Collaborator of the Month: Thomas Brey

For 25 years now, Dr. Thomas Brey has been a Senior Scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institut (AWI), Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (BremerhavenGermany). Currently, he is also the Head of Biosciences Division and Deputy Head of the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity in Oldenburg. 

Piqued by his interest in marine benthic invertebrates, he completed his PhD thesis, “The impact of physical and biological factors on structure and dynamics of the sublittoral Macoma-community in Kiel Bay,” from 1986 to 1988.  He then started his post-doctoral fellowship at  AWI in 1989, and, after heading several working groups, became the head of section “Functional Ecology” in 2009 [1].

His current research interest revolves around building geo-referenced marine ecological information systems, with focus on marine benthic invertebrates of Polar Seas, climate change, population dynamics, trophic ecology, mollusk sclerochronology, and scientific management among others [2,3]. As of 2018, he has written over 190 publications and overseen 46 PhD theses, 38 MSc and Diploma theses, and 15 BA theses.

Thomas Brey has been a SeaLifeBase collaborator since 2009 and has contributed population dynamics data, specifically substantial data on mass conversion factors

Early 2018, through a funding from the Alfred Wegener Institut, FishBase and SeaLifebaseglobal biodiversity information systems on all marine fish and non-fish of the world—have started to improve the coverage of marine biodiversity of the Polar Seas.Led by Thomas Brey, the project started in January 2018 and, as of August 2018, around 892 references were used to assign fish and other marine metazoans. With the teams' effort and support from collaborators, 7,025 species have been documented in the region and made available through FishBase and SealifeBase: 497 bony fishes, 21 sharks, 199 vertebrates, at least 6186 invertebrates, and 78 plants. This has been a good start, since, to date, more than 8,000 marine species have been estimated in Polar Seas.

[1] Alfred Wegener Institut. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2SfPkxy
[2] ResearchGate. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2q8gTvM
[3] Google Scholar. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2z4wY9W

25 October 2018

This is Why We Celebrate Our Reefs

Arthur's Rock, Mabini, Batangas (Photo by Maria Lourdes Palomares)

This year, 2018, marks the third celebration of the International Year of the Reef (IYOR).  It was first conceived in 1997 by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) to address the rising threats to our coral reefs and its associated ecosystems—mangroves and seagrass beds. Because caring for our coral reefs becomes ever more critical today, this celebration aims to inspire people to come together and help improve the conditions of our reefs for the long-term.

But first, what actually is a coral?

For centuries, taxonomists have been baffled about corals. Yes, they’re like plants—immobile, photosynthetic, home to many creatures. In contrast, like animals, they can be insidious: to capture a nearby prey, they fire their toxic nematocysts from their stinging cells (cnidocytes). Quite a character, right?

Thankfully, with the invention of the microscope, corals have landed their spot: they are clearly animals, but "flower animals" to be exact [2].

What makes corals as we know them today? 

What clads them with hunting colors?

And what enables them to build colonies underwater?

It's the zooxanthellae. They're single-celled dinoflagellates.

Zooxanthellae and corals are inextricably linked to one another. These symbiotic algae live within the corals’ tiny polyps, channeling almost 90% of the food it makes—glucose and amino acids—which enables the growth of calcium-laden structures [6]. Specifically, these reef-building corals (Scleractinia) need light and thus restricted to shallow sunlit waters. However, not all  Scleractinia have zooxanthellae. In fact, half of all Scleractinia do not have symbiotic algae (azooxanthellate species) and thus are not limited by light, temperature and depth. This eases competition for space, allowing them to live in different ocean depths, relying on plankton for food [7].

So we know now that zooxanthellae breathe life to reef-building corals, while corals provide a home to the algae. It's a partnership that has long stood time.

And why is this partnership so special, especially now? A recent study reveals this relationship dates back to 160 M years ago, during Middle Jurassic, well before the days that wiped out dinosaurs. This is particularly interesting to scientists because it opens possibilities on the coral algae's resilience against rising temperatures [4].

The Earth has warmed 1°C since the 19th century. Although it sounds no big deal, even half a degree increase in global temperature is a step away from coral mass mortality (what we experience today) to a world where corals become 'rare' [5].

When corals experience stress from severe pollution, increased temperatures and acidic waters, they excrete their algae, their very life, and thus become bleached [2]. This wildly impacts marine life, which highly depends on these ecosystems for food, shelter, and breeding [3]. On the bright side, there are more tools available now to increase public awareness on coral bleaching. A great tool, NOAA Coral Reef Watch uses a daily global 5km satellite (based on sea surface temperature monitoring) to depict areas where coral bleaching heat stress currently reaches various levels. 

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), healthy reefs and other ecosystem services amount to more than $29.8 B yearly. But beyond the huge economic value we get from reefs—food security, coastal protection, tourism, medicines, among countless benefits—the presence of corals reminds us that there is so much in nature that's difficult to put a value on. 

Reefs are too precious. They leave us in awe. A world without them is just difficult to imagine. 

Conservation International produced a great film series called Nature Is Speaking, where known figures literally embody the Earth. In the video below, Ian Somerhalder is the CORAL REEF. And he's not just a rock. He does way more than we could imagine.

Protecting our oceans can be a lot to take in and these days we can be easily flooded with reminders to do our part as ocean stewards. Sure, incredible movements spur here and there and they’re truly commendable. But how can we, as ordinary citizens, not only contribute this year but also commit long-term?
Luckily, there’s a number of small things we can do—things that we're probably doing now—which we can improve upon and anchor to a more meaningful purpose.

One way is to reduce our plastic use by bringing our own recyclable shopping bags. We can also participate in coastal clean-ups. It might also be a good idea to make our time online worth it by creating and sharing meaningful content. Nowadays, if we're keen to put our curiosity to good use, we can become a citizen scientist and participate in real data gathering. We can also know more about corals online—SeaLifeBase, a database of all non-fish species in the world, can be a good place to start.  Happy learning!

[1] International Year of the Reef. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2qkNjGi
[2] Amorina, K. 1 Sep 2016. Coral, Explained. Hakai Magazine. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2Aoq5T0
[3] Murali. 16 Sep 2018. Why Coral Reefs are Important for Earth. City Today.  Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2ERfS5R
[4] Halton, M. 10 Aug 2018. Coral Reefs 'Weathered Dinosaur Extinction."  BBC News. Retrieved from https://bbc.in/2Pcg2Zp
[5] Plumer and Popovich N. 7 Oct 2018. Why Half a Degree of Global Warming is a Big Deal. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2QPjRAR
[6] NOAA. Corals. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2ReIlUl
[7] Veron, JEN. 2000. Corals of the World, Vol. 1,2,3. Australian Institute of Marine Science.

05 July 2018

The Big Life In Between Grains

Photo from Entouriste

Let's imagine ourselves walking along the shore, adoring this stretch of white sand.

What do you see? Apparently, it's too tricky to tell. 

Only if we find ourselves curious and play with the sand for a bit we'll be able to spot some critters. There could be hermit crabs trotting along, worms making tunnels, and seaweeds washing ashore. Or there could be a seabird waiting for its meal. 

But for the most part, life on the shore seems quiet and empty.

Now, if we change the scenery and make a visit to a busy thriving forest, how would our "lifeless" beach compare?

As anyone who's been in a forest, it's easy to tell the animals are there. We can tell there are cicadas, birds, earthworms, a variety of plants, and fascinating insects we don't know about. We know it's alive from the cacophony of sounds and colors.

In fact, Professor E.O. Wilson remarks that, when we put a cap on all the living terrestrial groups, only seven different phyla exist in the woods [1].

But when we drench our feet in sand and foam, it's a different story...

“The surf may at first seem lifeless, composed of water and soil and washed clean. The opposite is true … among the grains of sand in the surf zone, you will in time find twice the number of phyla." -E.O. Wilson

The beach, in fact, holds 14 different phyla against the seven in the forests. Professor Wilson talks about diversity here, not population in numbers [1].

Who knew that the sand alone hosts an impressive universe of little, wriggling creatures down our feet? 

The Interstitial Breathes

These invisible organisms breathing in between grains are called meiofauna (smaller than 1 mm but larger than about 45 microns), and they comprise as Wilson calls the "little-known planet." 

Purely meiofaunal organisms alone make up five out of the 34 recognized phyla in the animal kingdom. They are literally a thriving empire of organisms
one footprint of moist sand carries as big as 50,000 to 100,000 individuals [2].

These meiofaunagastrotrichs, kinorhynchs, gnathostomulids, loriciferans,  nematodes, priapulids,  rotifers, tardigradesare easy to overlook but they're actually there, clinging for life, clad with smart adaptations suitable for a life in the interstitial.

They're small but they boast complex physiology comparable to the relatively huge macrofauna. They have also developed an array of adaptations to their ever-shifting habitats: Tardigrades (water bears) have claws and suction in their toes to grip on grains; kinorhynchs use their spine-bearing mouth to hook into sand or mud; free-living nematodes possess slender bodies, easing in between grains and use thread-like setae to hold on to their substrate; gastrotrichs are known to hang too tight to their substrate with a strong adhesive.

Check out this creative and interactive infographic (Hakai Magazine) of some meiofauna and the challenges they face in their big world [3].

Photo of a gastrotrich (David Scharf/Corbis, Hakai Magazine)

The Beach We Came to Know

Meiofauna bridge important links in benthic food webs. Aside from serving as important food to many organisms, they are key decomposers which feed and break down detritus, thus keeping microbial communities active and enhancing nutrient recycling. Through bioturbation and burrow construction (plus their sheer number) they render stability to our benthic ecosystems and shape them as we have them today [5].

Ultimately, these make them the very life of the beach: without meiofauna, our beach is but a mire of untouched, organic debris [2].

A clear grasp of their number and diversity, though, remains to be seen. Wilson says we haven't even come close to documenting all of them; there's just a lot to learn and new worlds to discover [1]. And new ways of seeing things, too. 

The next time we go the beach and grab a fistful of sand, we know we're not alone
a multitude of organisms keep us company, living their big lives in between grains. 

If you have more information on meiofauna and other non-fish organisms, we'll be happy to have you as one of SeaLifeBase collaborators. Let us know by sending us an email or visiting our FaceBook page.

[1] Krulwich, R. (2016, March 3). An empty beach isn't empty at all. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1Umi4SB

[2] Mason, A. (2016, March 21). The micro monsters beneath your beach blanket. Hakai Magazine. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2vi5aPL

[3] Mason, A., Garrison, M. & Kingdon, A. (2017, April 28). Life interstitial. Hakai Magazinehttp://bit.ly/2w5DLxW

[4] Gerlach, S. A. (1978). Food-chain relationships in subtidal silty sand marine sediments and the role of meiofauna in stimulating bacterial productivity. Oecologia33(1), 55-69.

[5] Schratzberger, M. & Ingels, J. Meiofauna matters: the roles of meiofauna in benthic ecosystems. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2KP4hCz

05 June 2018

Symbiosis special: What makes the Hawaiian bobtail squid glow?

Photo by Todd Bretl, Monterey Bay Aquarium
As adorable as the endemic Hawaiian bobtail squid Euprymna scolopes can be, its famed relationship with a microbe is even more special: among thousands of marine bacteria, only one microbe, Vibrio fischeri, is known to successfully colonize the squid's light organ within its mantle, turning the squid into an enchanting and 'disappearing' luminescent creature [1-4,8]. 

Few hours after the hatchlings are out from their egg case, V. fischeri from the surrounding water begin to enter the pores on either side of the light organ, settling on the epithelium-lined inner crypt spaces (tiny spaces within the organ)  [1,2,5].

Specificity is achieved early on through a mutual dialogue between the young host and the symbiont (i.e., agreement on entry and attachment of the microbe). Once the microbes have established, this transformation triggers a series of biological changes in both organisms, strengthening their relationship [7].

Now, the squid matures, and as if charging a weapon for the night, V. fishceri reaches its highest concentration in the light organ. And the squid shines its brightest [2,6].

While the squid hunts for prey, the microbes perfectly match the intensity of the moonlight welling down from above, reducing the squid's silhouette, ultimately giving it an 'invisibility cloak' (counter-illumination) against predators seeing from below [5,8]. What's more interesting is that the host is equipped not only to detect but to also control the amount of light emitted by the bacteria through its specialized light organ features [5]. 

Here's a video from Ed Yong (The Atlantic), illustrating this fascinating partnership.

As the dawn breaks, it secretes from its light organ a thick mucous containing 95% of its symbionts back into the sea, while the rest of the microbes replenish themselves to start another cycle [2,6]. Over the rest of the day, the squid becomes dormant and retreats into the sand [6].

For over 20 years, this squid-vibrio relationship has been key in studying many biological phenomena, like cephalopod development and the structure of tissue interacting with light [6]; this one-on-one connection has also been crucial in understanding host-microbe interactions in a natural microenvironment [1,2]. 

Beyond this, the squid-vibrio partnership is important, because, it turns out, the microbe 'remakes' and protects its host: reaching the adult state is only possible when the squid harbors the right microbial ally [8]. 

And, charmingly, the squid need not look further.

To know more about bobtail squids, visit SeaLifeBase.

[1] Rader, B. A., & Nyholm, S. V. (2012). Host/microbe interactions revealed through “omics” in the symbiosis between the Hawaiian bobtail squid Euprymna scolopes and the bioluminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeriThe Biological Bulletin, 223(1), 103-111.

[2] Schleicher, T. R., & Nyholm, S. V. (2011). Characterizing the host and symbiont proteomes in the association between the Bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, and the bacterium, Vibrio fischeriPLoS One, 6(10), e25649.

[3] Boettcher, K. J., & Ruby, E. G. (1990). Depressed light emission by symbiotic Vibrio fischeri of the sepiolid squid Euprymna scolopes. Journal of Bacteriology, 172(7), 3701-3706.

[4] Yazzie, N., Salazar, K. A., & Castillo, M. G. (2015). Identification, molecular characterization, and gene expression analysis of a CD109 molecule in the Hawaiian bobtail squid Euprymna scolopesFish & Shellfish Immunology, 44(1), 342-355.

[5] Peyer, S. M., Pankey, M. S., Oakley, T. H., & McFall-Ngai, M. J. (2014). Eye-specification genes in the bacterial light organ of the bobtail squid Euprymna scolopes, and their expression in response to symbiont cues. Mechanisms of Development, 131, 111-126.

[6] McFall-Ngai, M. (2014). Divining the essence of symbiosis: insights from the squid-vibrio model. PLoS Biology, 12(2), e1001783.

[7] Visick, K. L., & McFall-Ngai, M. J. (2000). An exclusive contract: specificity in the Vibrio fischeri-Euprymna scolopes partnership. Journal of Bacteriology, 182(7), 1779-1787.

[8] Yong, E. (26, Jan 2018). The lovely tale of an adorable squid and its glowing partner. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/01/the-lovely-tale-of-an-adorable-squid-and-its-glowing-partner/551549/

05 April 2018

FishBase and SeaLifeBase sign MoU with World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS)

Databases are rich sources of information, serving not only as learning tools, but a means toward fruitful collaborations and a catapult in advancing scientific research.

This has been the very aim when World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), FishBase, and SeaLifeBase have officially formed a collaboration last March 2018 to best serve the scientific community.

Last September 2017, the WoRMS Data Management Team attended the 15th International FishBase Symposium in TervurenBelgium. The meeting focused on WoRMS’ underlying database Aphia and its potential use in global, regional and thematic registers, along with LifeWatch Taxonomic Backbone.

The team discussed the existing collaboration between FishBase and WoRMS, wherein FishBase has served as the taxonomic resource for fish names in WoRMS. Building on the ties that have strengthened both databases, the WoRMS team expressed their intention to also document in their database the fish distributions and traits from FishBase.

During the consortium meeting, the team has also seen the potential of FishBase's sister-database, SeaLifeBase—a joint project of the Sea Around Us (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) and the FishBase Consortium—in providing biological and ecological information of global non-fish species, which can then be maximized for biodiversity and ecosystem studies. WoRMS, in turn, would provide its taxonomic backbone to SeaLifeBase. 

Related links:
WoRMS-Q-quatics MOU

SeaLifeBase is on the lookout for a Research Assistant

Quantitative Aquatics, Inc. is hiring a Research Assistant I for SeaLifeBase, a database documenting all marine non-fish species of the world. 

Kindly see below the details for your reference.