Biotechnology

Worms are named after comedians who have an impact on the reproduction of spiny and venomous lobsters

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A species of nemertean worm discovered by marine biologists at Clemson University five years ago affects the reproductive performance of the Caribbean spiny lobster, a critical species in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

A species of nemertean worm discovered by marine biologists at Clemson University five years ago affects the reproductive performance of the Caribbean spiny lobster, a critical species in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

Antonio Baeza, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, discovered the new worm while researching the behavior of the mother spiny lobster Panulirus argus in the Florida Keys. Baeza kindly named the worm Carcinonemertes conanobrieni after comedian Conan O’Brien because of his physical features — long and pale with a hint of orange.

The worm has been found off the coast of Colombia and the West Indies.

Caribbean spiny lobsters, which get their name from the forward-facing spines that cover their bodies, live in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean as far north as North Carolina, as well as the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. They are one of the most ecologically significant and commercially profitable Caribbean species.

Caribbean spiny lobster landings have declined over the last decade. Scientists don’t know why, although they have identified several possibilities – overfishing, declining water quality, global climate change, and environmental degradation.

A new study published in the journal BMC Zoology suggesting the worms discovered by Baeza were likely contributors as well.

Expert fishermen caught 90 spiny lobsters spawning near Pueblo Viejo, Magdalena, Colombia, to determine if C. conanobrians affect embryonic mortality, fecundity and reproductive outcomes in incubating females.

Of the 90 lobsters, nearly 88% had nemertean worms or worm cysts and egg masses.

Embryo mortality, indicated by empty capsules and dead embryos, ranged between 0% and 43.81% in infected pregnant females. Embryonic mortality was absent in uninfected gravid female lobsters.

The researchers also confirmed that the presence of worms had an impact on reproductive outcomes.

“Parasite effects vary from female to female. Some may be severely affected; others may not. We don’t know why yet,” said Baeza. “We know egg predation affects population levels, but we can’t say how much it will, whether it will be bad or devastating because we don’t have that data yet.”

Carcinonemertes worms have been responsible for the collapse of crustacean fisheries off the west coast of North America.

The Caribbean spiny lobster is very important to marine ecosystems as it falls prey to many predators, including sharks, large fish such as groupers and snappers, turtles and octopuses. They are also predators, and eat snails, crabs and clams. Shellfish are part of a distinct tropical chain, so when lobsters eat them, they link the tropical web and energy flows through the entire ecosystem.

” Entire industries and coastal communities throughout the Caribbean basin depend on this species , ” said Baeza .

Baeza said if researchers can understand the prevalence of egg predation and its impact, the modeling approach can predict future landings and inform fisheries managers to minimize harm.

In addition to Baeza, Clemson graduate student Natalie Stephens and researchers from Colombia and Chile contributed to the research. Their findings are detailed in the paper “Effects of egg predation of Carcinonemertes conanobrieni (Nemertea) on the reproductive performance of the Caribbean spiny lobster Panulirus argus.”


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