B.I.M.S. feature- Secrets of the Sea: A look at zoantharian how genetic analyses can reveal their identity

Associate professor and Program Coordinator Stanton Belford and (Right

This year, the ICB blog and BIMS, Black in Marine Science, will be collaborating to highlight scientists from the BIMS organization. We hope this collaboration will further foster connecting a phenomenal network of colleagues in marine bio and inform our readers about BIMS research as well as their continued work to not only create a network but also a safe space for their members.

This week Associate Professor, Stanton Belford has written about his work along the northeastern coast of Trinidad.

My dad was from the small coastal village of Blanchisseuse, Trinidad, where the ocean contributes to human existence in this rural area. We would travel through the meandering roads every weekend to visit this coastal village, as we stayed inland to attend school. My two memorable moments of dad were him placing me on his shoulders while riding the ocean waves, and him placing water in his hands for me to taste. After a brief moment of displeasure, he said, “you will never forget the ocean now.” That was my nostalgic introduction to the ocean, and an unknowing path in marine science had begun. I am coordinator of the biology program at the University of Tennessee Southern, where I lead undergraduate research and take students to Trinidad to assist me with annual coral reef monitoring.

For many years I’ve been conducting coral reef monitoring on a fringing reef located along the northeastern coast of Trinidad. In fact, the reason why I have stuck with marine sciences throughout my career is attributed to my high school teacher: Dr. Carol Draper who took her class to investigate the reefs at Toco, Trinidad. From this initial experience, I eventually conducted my master’s thesis research at the same site, with the assistance of my mentor: Dr. Dawn Phillip. In essence, the memories of their mentorship empowered my Marine Nostalgia, hence we decided to maintain annual coral reef species abundance and distribution, and though both mentors are gone, monitoring is still being done to this day.

reef flat at Toco, Trinidad during extreme low tide.

 Although the very southernmost island in the Caribbean Sea, the reefs in Trinidad are affected by freshwater flow from the island itself during the wet season (May-December), and also from the Orinoco River in South America. You could say that reefs here are surviving in an ever-changing dynamic ecosystem. However, a relatively recent publication recorded approximately 257 marine species, which provides an updated published resource for this region: Biodiversity of coral reef communities in marginal environments along the north-eastern coast of Trinidad, southern Caribbean (Belford et al. 2019). So why are there so many marine species in this seemingly less than appropriate ecosystem? That’s where the survey of species begins for me!  

Prior to COVID-19, students joined me on these expeditions where we have access to the reef flat during extreme low tides. Student observations revealed that species distribution seems stratified, with regions of hard corals: Porities porites (finger corals), and soft corals: Zoanthus sp., and Palythoa sp. (zoantharians), surrounded by marine invertebrates, such as Echinometra lucunter (rock-boring sea urchin) and Holothuria sp. (sea cucumbers). Many species have variations in color and morphology, therefore making it difficult to accurately identify them. Examples of such species are the zoantharians, which are anemone-like cnidarians, closely related to corals and sea anemones, form colonies of polyps and are widely distributed across these reefs.

I realized these zoantharians were very diverse in their appearance, with variable hues of orange, green, blue, and brown colors. Many have variable tentacle and oral disc colors, and sizes. Hence, I wondered if we have we been misidentifying these cnidarians. Annual coral reef surveys in this region is essential to provide knowledge of what marine organisms are found on reefs, but do we really know what species we are viewing? I had to add another facet to my coral reef monitoring research, therefore genetic analyses would be the next phase of knowledge gained from these reefs. What deeper secrets do the ocean hold?

Through advice and mentorship from one of the world’s leading scientist conducting zoantharian research: Dr. James Reimer, the first scientific article on zoantharian identification for this area was published, Shallow-water species diversity of common intertidal zoantharians (Cnidaria: Hexacorallia: Zoantharia) along the northeastern coast of Trinidad, southern Caribbean (Belford 2021).

Zoantharian diversity seen at Grande L´Anse Bay
Salybia Bay along the northeastern coast of Toco, Trinidad.

Genetic analyses have developed an intriguing method to solve many questions, especially in regards to zoantharians, and is an important way to accurately identify these marine cnidarians. However, this is only one feature of this technique. As global climate change continues to trend in a negative manner, which continues to question the future existence of many species, how will species adapt? In fact, how will zoantharians adapt? The next phase of my research must dig deeper. Therefore, zoantharian symbiont identification within these cnidarians has become a paramount mission, in order to understand how these species will adapt in an ever so changing marine habitat.

The search for new zoantharians at the reefs in Toco, Trinidad
Zoantharians observed at these reefs, which require genetic identification.

Connect with Stanton via Twitter  @StantonBelford

And stantonbelford.com

Connect with BIMS

via Twitter BlackinMarSci and


Author: suzannecrmiller

Author of Queen, Wage, The Selections on Amazon, Fly on site and soon to be Souvenir through @Inkdedingray publishing

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