Research recently conducted at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s Little Cayman Research Centre has come up with a variety of previously unidentified tiny complex worms.
The microscopic worms, known as gastrotrichs, were discovered by a research team from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, led by Rick Hochberg, an associate professor of biology with the university. The team’s research into these small but highly complex creatures, which range in size from around .5mm to 4mm, has revealed much more diversity than they originally expected to find, with the first week of their research identifying as many as 15 potentially previously unidentified species.
According to Mr. Hochberg, there are some 800 known gastrotrich species, but there could be as many as 10,000.
Carrie Manfrino, director of the institute, said the research is very significant for the research centre.
“The objective for the research station is to provide a reference site for studies such as these to occur. We set the station up here in Little Cayman because we felt the reefs were under very low human development pressure. We saw there was great biodiversity here and the significance of Richard’s work is that on a very small scale this is also very true,” she said.
According to Mr. Hochberg, Little Cayman provided the ideal location for the conclusion of their research, which has taken them all over the Caribbean.
“Most gastrotrichs prefer relatively clean sands and avoid areas of high organic load, for example, beaches that have a lot of runoff. In this way, they can function as a type of ecosystem indicator,” he said.
According to Mr. Hochberg, the team expected to find great diversity in the sands of Little Cayman, but were surprised to find that some species dominate in Little Cayman while they are much less plentiful on some of the other islands the team has worked on, including San Salvador Island, Jamaica, Carrie Bow Cay and Isla Colon.
“This indicates to us that there is something special about the sands of Little Cayman compared to other islands, and we hope to figure out what that is someday,” he said.
Although little is known about the exact role of these creatures in the ecosystem, they definitely have an important role to play.
“We know they are primary consumers, eating unicellular algae that lives between sand grains. Second, they consume bacteria and contribute to the breakdown of dead algae and small animals. By doing so, gastrotrichs transfer this food energy to larger animals, which don’t feed on such small items, but do feed on gastrotrichs. In this way, gastrotrichs contribute to both the marine food chain and help clean the beaches and sands between coral heads,” Mr. Hochberg said.
The research into these microscopic creatures is of great importance as the pressures exerted by global climate change as well as development around the globe could lead to many species to disappear before being discovered.
The team will take photographs and genetic samples back with them to be analysed and determine whether the species they have found are indeed new to science. The genetic analysis will also be of great importance in determining how these creatures are related to other gastrotrichs and how speciation and evolution happens.
Although Mr. Hochberg’s current research is focussed on gastrotrichs, the diversity in other small creatures in Little Cayman may well prompt a return trip.
“The diversity of gastrotrichs is high, but perhaps more diverse are the other meiofaunal (tiny) animals. Groups like the molluscs, annelids, nematodes and flatworms are extremely diverse and to my knowledge, almost completely unknown from this area. For this reason, I expect to organise a Meiofauna Workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation to bring in some global experts from the Smithsonian Institution and universities around the world to help characterise this very unique fauna,” he said.
According to Mr. Hochberg, the facilities at the Little Cayman Research Centre are very important when it comes to conducting research.
“Most Caribbean islands have limited resources for assisting biodiversity scientists. However, the facilities at CCMI are ideal for performing the kinds of research we do – lab space, running sea water, boats, dive facilities, microscopes, et cetera – all make for a truly wonderful laboratory in one of the most idyllic settings imaginable,” Mr. Hochberg said.
According to Ms Manfrino, the centre has played host to scientist from eight different countries over the years, with over a hundred scientist having made use of the facilities at the centre since it opened its doors in May 2006.