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Visiting Scientists

Operation Wallacea

During the course of a six-week program, three students representing Operation Wallacea (Marcus Griffiths of the University of Nottingham, Rob McCalman of the University of Portsmouth and Lucy Arrowsmith of the University of Cardiff) have teamed up with Dr. Owen O’Shea at The Cape Eleuthera Institute to investigate the benthic habitat diversity of various creek systems around Eleuthera, The Bahamas. This project aims to establish the relationships between environmental and physical characteristics of the recently ‘re-discovered’ Caribbean Whiptail Stingray, Himantura schmardae.  As a meso-predatory species, these stingrays provide an important link between apex predators and the benthic organisms they prey upon. An abundance of this species within creek systems provides a good indication of ecosystem health. The Ray team surveying Deep Creek - A very large and biologcally rich ecosystem bordering the deep Exuma Sound

The team are currently in the process of completing benthic habitat analysis on four sites: Deep and Wemyss Bight Creek (Atlantic/Exuma Sound) and Kemps and Starved Creek (Grand Bahama Bank). This project is collecting data using a 1m2 quadrat to assess the percentage cover of flora and fauna species found in these locations, so far completing a total of 274 quadrats over a 2.6Km2 combined study area. In addition, sediment cores; sediment depth; water salinity; dissolved oxygen and water temperature are being collected at each location to gather a broader insight into the habitual preference of juvenile Himantura schmardae that appear to be utilizing these creeks on a long term basis.

The Caribbean whiptail stingray - specimen from Deep Creek

The aim of the investigation is to determine the relationship between the creek environments and the presence or absence of this relatively elusive stingray. Additionally the morphological, sexual and feeding characteristics will provide insight into the potential role of these marine systems as possible nursery sites. As a relatively new re-discovery for The Bahamas, this research could provide critical information towards development of successful conservation plans, and fine-tuning the coverage of marine protection areas (MPAs) as declared by The Caribbean challenge for the Bahamas in 2008.

Kemps Creek on the Banks side - a smaller, mangrove fringed creek

Professor Wicksten visits CEI

Prof. Wicksten exploring the inland ponds The Reef Ecology and Restoration team welcomed Prof. Mary Wicksten to CEI last week. Prof. Wicksten is a professor at Texas A&M University, College Station, where she works on the biogeography, systematics and behavior of decapod crustaceans. Prof. Wicksten is collaborating with CEI’s Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick on the anchialine pond research.

Rare shrim found in the ponds of Eleuthera. Photo credit: Drew Hitchner

During Prof. Wicksten’s visit, she got to explore some of the inland ponds and helped to identify deep sea crab species for other researchers at the institute. Prof. Wicksten used her expert ID skills to also identify crabs and shrimp present in the stomach contents of some lionfish. Prof. Wicksten had the opportunity to talk with the young ones from the ELC about crustaceans – inspiring future scientists!

Although a short visit to the CEI, Prof. Wicksten made the most of her time, and even helped to support the ongoing lionfish outreach.  She attended the Blue Seahorse art show, where the Reef Ecology team was increasing lionfish awareness, particularly the importance of removing the lionfish from the reefs and spreading the word that it is a really good fish to eat!

It was a pleasure to have Prof. Wicksten with us for four amazing days!

Graduate student Dan Montgomery working on stingray research at CEI

The team take measurements of a stingray prior to fitting an iButton In the past week, members of the Stingray Research Team from the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SRCP) have begun work on a new project investigating the thermal ecology of southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana). As part of the research for this new study, the stingray team, assisted by gap year students and interns, fitted southern stingrays with temperature recorders. These recorders monitor seawater temperatures experienced by stingrays every 15 minutes for 3 weeks.

Southern stingray fitted with iButton swims away after release

All sharks and rays are ectotherms, meaning their internal body temperature is controlled by the temperature of the environment around them. As such, changes in seawater temperature can impact the physiological processes of the animals, which may mean that temperature differences among the coastal waters of Eleuthera influence the areas which rays use.

Surgical needles are used to make holes in the stingrays tail in order to attach the iButton

Over the next 4 months, the study aims to tag 50 rays at both Marker Bar and the Schooner Cays, as well as conduct laboratory experiments with rays to identify thermal preferences. Also, temperature tags fitted to wild individuals will aid in understanding whether temperature is a driver of habitat selection in this ray species. Quantifying the drivers for habitat use of these ecologically important species is vital to effectively manage coastal marine habitats. The research is led by Daniel Montgomery, a postgraduate research student at Newcastle University, who is working in collaboration with Dr. Owen O’Shea and CEI.

 

Nassau grouper spawning aggregation expedition

Nassau grouper is an economically important species in The Bahamas. Due to heavy fishing pressure, there have been marked decreases in their population sizes, especially noticeable during their spawning season. The spawning season takes place during the winter months, from December to the end of February, and the aggregations occur during the full moon. Dr. Kristine Stump from the Shedd Aquarium has been monitoring Nassau grouper in The Bahamas to track their movements to spawning aggregations, as well as to quantify the number of Nassau grouper at these historical spawning sites. The researchers that took part in the Nassau grouper work in front of the Shedd Aquarium vessel

This January, the Shedd Aquarium research vessel, The Coral Reef II, travelled to Long Island, to historical spawning sites, with a representative of The Cape Eleuthera Institute on board, to assist Dr. Stump with her research. Throughout the week-long journey, the researchers on board performed dive surveys to quantify spawning stock size at one specific site.  Unfortunately, very few Nassau grouper were aggregating at the site during the times of the surveys; at most 20 were noted on one survey. Illegal fishing was occurring at the time the vessel reached the site, which could explain the decreased abundance of the grouper. Poor weather conditions prevented the researchers from performing surveys on the night of the full moon, so it is unclear if numbers increased during the spawning event. 

Throughout the trip, amidst the dive surveys, Nassau grouper were  implanted with transmitters. These transmitters track the movements of the Nassau grouper from the spawning sites back to their original habitat with strategically placed receivers, in efforts to understand where they come from and how far these fish travel to these spawning sites. At the spawning site, the five receivers were extracted and replaced with new receivers. The data from the receivers showed the movements of the Nassau grouper which will add to Dr. Stump's dataset. Blood samples were also collected from these fish for Krista Sherman from Exeter University, who is using this blood to look at hormone levels and ways of determining sex of grouper non-invasively.

Although the weather failed to cooperate, four fish were implanted with transmitters which will help provide data for the upcoming spawning period, and the receivers have provided Shedd Aquarium with useful data.

 

Global Finprint Project: Nassau Expedition

A juvenile tiger shark  (Galeocerdo cuvier) - one of three captured on camera Last week, four members of the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SRCP) travelled to Nassau, New Providence to participate in a global effort to assess the abundance and diversity of apex predators on coral reefs, termed The Global Finprint Project (GFP). The GFP is a Paul G. Allen initiative, facilitating global cooperation between various scientific institutions. The main goal is to collect abundance and diversity data on reef-associated elasmobranchs in order to provide a valuable baseline pertaining to their current population trends.  The call to assess the health of these populations is critical, as many are either listed by the IUCN as data deficient, or are showing rapid declines.  The GFP is the largest study of its kind ever undertaken, and the SRCP is responsible for surveying a multitude of sites across the greater Caribbean.

Abundance and diversity data is collected through a scientifically accepted, non-invasive methodology, Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUVs).  BRUV’s consist of a camera, weighted frame, and bait arm, which provides a concentrated plume, designed to attract predators. BRUVS are deployed for 90-minute ‘soak’ periods in order to allow enough time for the plume to travel and disperse within the water column.  Over seven days the team collected over 100 hours of video from two regions (south west, and north east) off Nassau, New Providence, from depths ranging from 2m to 30m.

 

Two Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) feeding from a bait crate

Preliminary assessment of the video data suggest a diverse array of sharks and other predators associated with reefs around Nassau. The team identified hammerhead, Caribbean reef, blacknose, nurse, and tiger sharks, as well as southern stingrays, amberjack, turtles and a Spanish mackerel.  Failing to robustly assess the diversity and the relative abundance of these animals has large implications for their effective management, and data collected from Nassau provides an intrinsic step to facilitating the success of this global conservation effort. Finally, our team would like to extend large thanks to Stuart Cove’s for their generous hospitality during this trip.

 

A southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) passing a BRUV unit