Photos: Hayley Stutzman
When I was younger, I liked to pretend I was a mermaid when I went to the local swimming pool. Splashing around happily, I sought to emulate the Little Mermaid. I imagined that I was the benevolent protector of an underwater kingdom comprised of dolphins and whales--my favorite aquatic animals. As I've grown older, my love for all things nautical has stayed with me, but I've learned that dolphins and whales aren't the only aquatic creatures that require protection.
This week, at Bocas del Toro, we discussed some of the most important, but often overlooked, creatures under the sea: coral, algae, and sea grasses. Coral is perhaps the most dynamic and well-appreciated of these three organisms since it comes in a variety of bright colors and is home to eye catching fish (in addition to being the setting of scenes in movies such as Finding Nemo). However, algae and sea grass, despite being less well-known, are both primary producers that form the base of many marine food webs.
I had never snorkeled before coming to Bocas, so the underwater research portion of our stay here was novel, to say the least. For our research, we looked at the effect of herbivores on structural complexity within coral reef and sea grass beds. Herbivores such as fish and sea urchins help stimulate primary productivity; they act as "lawn mowers" that trim some of the primary producers' tissue without killing the entire organism, which promotes new primary producer growth. In our case, the primary producers were macroalgae or sea grass and the herbivores in question were sea urchins. We wanted to see if there was more structural complexity in areas with more sea urchins. After two days of conducting our under water research--which is trickier than it sounds--we found that sea urchin cover does indeed correlate with structural complexity, although we can't assume there is a cause-and-effect relationship due to the limited scope of our data.
Outside of research time, we were allowed to explore the reef and I got to see marine life that I'd previously only read about or seen in documentaries. We saw groups of squid, neon-colored parrotfish, clumps of Cyanobacteria, stingrays, and sponges among other organisms. Like so many other reefs, the reef we explored that hosted such a variety of life is in danger due to climate change. Rising temperatures and ocean acidification due to the proliferation of dissolved carbon dioxide leads to coral bleaching, essentially catalyzing mass die-offs of the organisms that provide food and shelter for the organisms described above, and many more. Our time in Bocas del Toro has reminded me of the urgency with which we need to protect our existing reefs and explore options for conservation.