Gastrotrichs Take Center Stage; 20+ New Species Discovered
Dr. Rick Hochberg, like many other research scientists, has been known to work 20 hour days. What helps, he says, is that they are often spent on an island paradise. Dr. Hochberg, an assistant professor in the Biological Sciences Department at UMass Lowell, is embarking on a three-year project to collect, classify, and barcode marine species of Gastrotrichs from several islands and island nations throughout the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Belize, Cayman Islands, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Panama, Turks and Caicos, and the US Virgin Islands. The work will be funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and will be co-sponsored in part by the National Museum of Natural History.
The research is important because it will help us better understand the ecology, evolution, and biodiversity of these microscopic animals, says Dr. Hochberg. These invertebrates are incredibly diverse, but relatively little is known about their anatomy, behavior, and evolution. The project will enhance research on this understudied phylum, and also enable current databases to be updated and improved. This work is done in collaboration with the Encyclopedia of Life.
Urodasys, a new species discovered by Dr. Hochberg, is under 1mm in length.
Dr. Hochberg recently returned from his first leg of his trip to Carrie Bow Bay in Belize. While he was there, he discovered over twenty new species of gastrotrichs and another group of microscopic animals called flatworms. Dr. Hochberg and his team of experts identified and obtained specific molecular sequences of all marine animals around the island, with the idea of being able to compare the occurrence of the species found in Belize to other areas in the Caribbean. It will also enable him to learn a great deal about the evolutionary history of the animals. His next destination will be Bocas del Toro in Panama this June.
This part of the Western Hemisphere is especially important to study, Dr. Hochberg says, because of its environmental vulnerability. Small island developing states (SIDS) rely on their beautiful coastlines for tourism revenue. But because of increased human activity and a population swell along the shore, the sedimentary habitats of the marine gastrotrichs are being threatened and in greater need than ever for conservation. Global warming also contributes to the deterioration of the gastrotrichs' natural habitat through increased storm activity and the rising seas. Without good coastal health, the tourism industry is in jeopardy, and the community of these microscopic animals is in danger.
Dr. Hochberg spent most of January, 2010 in Carrie Bow Bay, Belize.
Dr. Hochberg noted that gastrotrichs play an important role in the overall health of their ecosystem and in the benthic processes, but are comparatively understudied. He points to their small size as a reason why they go unnoticed, as many are under 1mm in length. He and other scientists from Cameroon, Italy, Germany, and South Korea are hoping to expand what is known about these animals. This multinational collaboration will go a long way towards building long-term partnerships in the future. As part of this cooperative effort, the course "Training in Tropical Taxonomy" will be offered at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, giving undergraduate and graduate students the unique opportunity of gaining hands-on experience identifying and classifying these animals.