Six-month Hallmark and the Mystery of the Vanished Tags

Our six-month sampling is already completed. It seems like yesterday when we travel to Culebra for the first time to start this project, and here we are already halfway through it.

It hasn’t been easy and sometimes it looked like very unattainable, but our great team was always able to pull it through. Taking into account our previous experiences in the field, this trip was not an exception (we are still waiting for an easy one). Changes in the ferry schedule and location and the occurrence of a “paranormal” event, seasoned the trip.

In the sites, our outplants were doing really great and we developed the initial part of the work with nothing to report. But Culebra had a surprise for us. Right after we started our last immersion of the day in Cayo Luis Peña, people started looking to each other with astonishment. Our colonies looked in great shape but several have lost their tags and there was no trace of them. We saw no evidence of damage to the corals and the wire that used to hold the tag was still in place but cut clean.

The mystery of the vanished tags had started. Luckily for us, we had considered this possibility so we maintained a diagram of the quadrants with the exact location of each coral and a photographic record to allow us to retag them. With this peace of mind, hypotheses about the reasons for such events started to unfold. From tag-eating groupers to alien intervention our hypotheses wandered a vast space of possibilities. As expected, most were untestable and the mystery remains unsolved.

Overall, we had an interesting trip (as always) that included successful sampling for microbiome, epigenetic, physiological and demographic analyses, as well as a mystery. We thought that would be all that the island had for us, but we were so wrong. The last night, one of the undergrads working with us came with the news that the ferry station was changed and the next morning ferry (ours) would go to a different terminal in Puerto Rico Island, about 15 miles south of the previous location our truck was parked. We don’t really travel light since we carry coolers for the samples, nitrogen dewars, luggage, diving gear, our DIVING-PAM, and many other things. How would we get to our truck the next day?

Fortunately, we work with great people and our undergrad Juan took a bullet for all and rode the last ferry that night to be able to pick us up at the new location the next day. The most important conclusion of these experiences we are having is: although planning is very important for field work success, a great team with problem-solving capacity is critical.

For a change, we started smoothly. Weather was fine, dry ice, nitrogen, and other materials were ready, the ferry going to Culebra was on schedule and everything developed really nicely.

Bottom Time with Dr. Jose M (Chema) Eirin-Lopez

Dr. Eirin-Lopez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Center of Coastal Oceans Research at FIU. His research program is broadly focused on environmental epigenetics, and with particular emphasis on marine ecosystems. During his career, he has published more than 70 peer-reviewed papers, mentoring 7 Ph.D. students, 3 M.S. students, 2 postdocs and more than 20 undergraduates. He is the Lead PI in the present Research Grant.

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

My first contact with corals as model systems dates back to the early 2000s when I studied histone families in several cnidarians as part of a larger effort to elucidate the mechanisms driving the evolution of multigene families. Later on, when I moved to FIU in 2013, I had the opportunity to get fully acquainted with the ecology of these organisms by progressive developing fieldwork working with Acropora cervicornis, first in the Florida Keys and now in Puerto Rico.

What is the most important contribution of this project to the assessment and recovery of coral reefs?

I believe that corals are extraordinary organisms to study how global climate change impacts our oceans. On one hand, corals are ecosystem-forming organisms whose well being is intimately linked to the health of coastal areas and their inhabitants. On the other, the symbiotic nature of many of these corals provides an additional layer of complexity regulating the exchange of information between environmental signals and coral responses. This project will shed light into how such an exchange takes place and what is the role of the different players in this symbiotic interaction (i.e., coral, algae, bacteria). That information will provide us with the necessary knowledge to select coral colonies and symbionts better equipped to survive global climate change.

Once this project is complete, what do you think would be the next step in coral research?

Thanks to the collaborations this project has opened, I have become very interested in the epigenetic determinants of coral symbiont (algae) phenotypes and their role influencing coral resiliency. Similarly, and on a more general scale, we are extremely excited about the role of epigenetic mechanisms regulating mito-energetic communication and energy budgets in the cells.

How will this project impact your future scientific development?

Thanks to this project I am building an extraordinary network of contacts that is opening many avenues to continue research and mentorship activities in the future. For instance, I am joining efforts with researchers at other institutions to integrate knowledge across disciplines, building new proposals aimed at model how epigenetic modifications regulate ecosystem function. In addition, this project is cementing the strong relationship between FIU and UPR and their role serving underserved minorities. These are just a few of the many different opportunities this project is bringing to the table, in addition to the obvious continuation of the current work in Puerto Rico in the future.

Corals are ecosystem-forming organisms whose well being is intimately linked to the health of coastal areas and their inhabitants. Their symbiotic nature provides an additional layer of complexity regulating the exchange of information between environmental signals and coral responses.