While in Panama, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Haris Lessios, a Senior Researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I was invited to join Dr. Lessios's ongoing investigations of the Molecular Evolution of Sea Urchins. My contribution was documenting thermal tolerances of Caribbean and Pacific sea urchins. Worldwide, seawater temperatures are rising in tropical coastal environments. Because of this year's El Niño, the effects of grossly elevated temperatures on the Pacific coast of Panama are starkly apparent. However, changes resulting from the more incremental increases in water temperature on the Caribbean coast are also very visible. While collaborating with Dr. Lessios's laboratory, I did most of my work at the Naos Marine Laboratory (officially, the Labortorios de Biología Molecular y Evolución) just outside of Panama City. Naos has a wonderful open-air aquarium room where I could watch the container ships queue up to enter the Canal while I worked. I also did field work in the intertidal rock fields of Culebra, also on Naos Island, and on the coral reefs at the Galeta Marine Laboratory, which is situated at the Caribbean end of the Canal.
Echinometra viridis, which are typically found on the reef fronts of Caribbean coral reefs, in an environment that is very constant, but which is slowly warming as global temperatures rise.
Echinometra lucunter, which are denizens of Caribbean reef flats, which live close to shore where temperatures can rise when waters are trapped behind the reef crest when the daily tides are out.
Echinometra vanbrunti, which live in crevices in the rocky intertidal zone on the Pacific coast, where they are immersed in the normally cooling waters of the Pacific, and then exposed to the tropical sun, during the large, twice-daily tides.
Because of the temperature oscillations associated with much larger tides, we hypothesized that the Pacific species would be the most thermally tolerant. Because of the very stable environment found on the deeper coral reef fronts, we hypothesized that the deeper-water, Caribbean sea urchin species would be the least thermally tolerant… Of course, the Norns laughed at our silly hypothesizing. The intern who was working with me was quite concerned when we found the Pacific sea urchins to be the least tolerant of sustained high temperatures, and the sea urchins normally found in cooler, deeper, more constant Caribbean waters to be the most resilient. I laughed and told my intern that this was why we did the experiments, and that, although scientists are happy when they are right, we get really, really excited when we are wrong. We did some quick follow up work that suggests that our Pacific sea urchins can tolerate very high temperatures, for very short periods of time. This is great for persisting through tidal cycles, but isn't going to help much in the face of ever-warming seawater temperatures. And, some quick observations in the Caribbean suggest that our normally deep water sea urchins are moving up from the reef front into the warmer shallows where they will be in direct competition with the only moderately thermally tolerant sea urchins which normally dominate the reef flat. I suggested to my hosts that I should grab some students and come back to follow up on these surprising observations. They whole-heartedly agreed and extended an open invitation...
Working at the Smithsonian was a wonderful experience in international science. My host was Greek. My roommate was Columbian. My intern was Spanish… And, because they don't use street addresses in Panama, every taxi ride stretched my Spanish, my drawing, and my pantomime skills to the limit… Way, way too much fun…