Four members of the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) community, including members of the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SRCP) and the reef ecology team, ventured down to Hummingbird Cay in the Exumas to further Dr. Owen O’Shea’s study on the elusive Caribbean whiptail stingray (Himantura schmardae). Very little is known about this species, but it is vital to elucidate information pertaining to their biology and ecology in order to calculate effective conservation methods. The main goal of this project is to determine connectivity and gene flow of the Caribbean whiptail stingray by collecting tissue samples from individuals across multiple spatial scales.
Stingrays are one of the most influential architects to their ecosystems, as they impact their surroundings in numerous ways. They hold an integral position in coastal food webs, acting as predators to animals in lower parts of the food chain and prey to those higher up, such as sharks. Their physical movements involve bioturbation – meaning reworking and suspending of sediments. This oxygenates the sediment around them and re-suspends nutrients, promoting primary productivity. Although there are gaps in our understanding regarding the behavioral tendencies of the Caribbean whiptail stingray, they are likely significant agents within their ecosystems.
The expedition began with four extremely successful days in the field; with near perfect weather conditions, the team caught 13 rays over a spatial scale exceeding 35 miles – something critical when evaluating gene flow of a species. Nine of these were male and all rays ranged from 80cm disc width to around 140 cm with all estimated as being mature or sub adult – an inverse trend in the population sampled from south Eleuthera.
Day five offered a frustrating morning without a single ray observed due to strong northerly winds, churning up the fine sediments, seemingly synonymous with this species. However, it wasn’t long before the team moved on to the leeward side of one of the islands and stumbled across an aggregation of 17 whiptail rays. The group consisted of very large adult stingrays, most of which were resting or casually mobile and seemed unflustered when we slipped quietly into the water for a closer inspection. Until now, no records exist in the literature of aggregations in this species from The Bahamas, and we can only speculate about how common this type of aggregation may be for this species. What is certain is that it was an honor to witness such a substantial group of these huge animals.
Between last year’s expedition and this most recent trip, DNA and stable isotope information has been collected from 15 individuals from this location and 23 from Eleuthera. This study will continue to grow as samples are expected to be collected over a larger spacial scale in the months to come, filling in the gaps from the rest of the Exuma chain.
We would like to acknowledge the Rufford Foundation for funding this work and making this expedition possible. Also, thank you to the exceptional team at Hummingbird Cay for welcoming us so hospitably and for helping to make our trip so successful.
Members of the Stingray Research Group from the Cape Eleuthera Institute’s Shark Research and Conservation Program have recently completed two days of outreach on Great Exuma. Following on from the highly successful Hummingbird Cay research expedition, the team, in collaboration with The Exuma Foundation and LN Coakley High School in Moss Town, took five students out to learn about stingrays at a marine reserve East of Georgetown.
The five students that spent the day with us were already incredibly knowledgeable about rays and their importance in regulating and maintaining healthy marine ecosystems. so we had a head start as we headed across Elizabeth Harbour towards Stocking Island. This designated marine reserve has long stretches of white sand beaches and little ‘hurricane holes’ naturally formed over time, allowing us to explore semi-enclosed ponds and quiet bays.
Upon arrival, the students were quizzed about rays and were given a safety talk before we set off looking for animals to capture and collect information from. While it was slow starting, we eventually caught a very small, immature female southern ray. Two of the students donned surgical gloves, and under the instruction of Research Technician Chris Ward, were able to complete a whole work up beneath the gaze of a dozen or so tourists that had gathered on the beach to watch what was happening.
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.
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.
Previous research indicates that bonefish migrate up to 80 km from shallow flats and tidal creeks to deeper water to spawn during the full and new moons. At these locations, bonefish gather in schools of hundreds to thousands of fish, forming spawning aggregations. To date, migration corridors and spawning aggregations have been located in South Eleuthera, Abaco, Andros, and Grand Bahama, and this information was used to create national parks on Abaco and Grand Bahama. The purpose of this telemetry study is to identify bonefish spawning aggregations and migration corridors around the island of Eleuthera. Information generated by this research can be used by the Department of Marine Resources and BNT to designate marine parks on Eleuthera, which will help The Bahamas meet the goal of protecting 20% of their marine environments by 2020.
Last Friday, Deep Creek Middle School’s Grade 7 joined Georgie Burruss, CEI Research Assistant, for a snorkel through Page Creek as part of the School Without Walls program. The focus of Grade 7′s School Without Walls program this year is human impacts on the environment. Nearshore environments, especially mangrove creeks, serve as a great educational tool for displaying how even small-scale coastal development can be detrimental to coastal habitat.
The students drifted with the incoming tide into the creek, practicing fish ID that they learned that morning with Liz Slingsby, Director of Summer Term and Gap Year Programs. At the end of their first snorkel through the creek, the students were able to successfully ID over a dozen fish species and discussed how mangroves act as nursery grounds for ecologically and economically important species such as snapper and lemon sharks.
With the excitement of snorkeling and floating with the current, the students quickly rushed to float down again. At the end, the group met and discussed how humans might affect mangrove creek systems. The students quickly recognized pollution and habitat degradation as some of the major impacts that humans can have on these important systems. As the group walked out of Page Creek, they observed how even a short beach access road can divide a creek, limiting available habitat.
CEI researchers look forward to spending more time with DCMS students during the School Without Walls programs!
Have you ever come across an animal – whether fish, bird, mammal, or even coral – that was impacted by plastic? Share your observation and details with the “Plastic Pollution: Impacts on Wildlife” project at http://www.anecdata.org/projects/view/123, a new citizen scientist page started by CEI researchers.
Photo info: From entanglement to asphyxiation, marine debris can have severe effects on animal health. Even small pieces of plastic, such as these collected from a great shearwater (Puffinus gravis) found washed ashore, adsorb pollutants from the environment, thus acting as a vector for the bioaccumulation of pollutants in birds, fish, and marine mammals.
Last week, researchers from The Cape Eleuthera Institute traveled to Abaco for the 7th Biennial Abaco Science Alliance Conference (ASAC) hosted by Friends of the Environment. Over the course of two days, posters and presentations alike highlighted research findings in natural history and environmental science in The Bahamas. Drawing a diverse audience with scientists from The Bahamas to as far as Canada, local community members and high school students from Abaco, the conference provided a forum for sharing scientific knowledge on the diverse ecosystems of The Bahamas.
Dr. Owen O’Shea, Research Associate for the Shark Research and Conservation Program, gave an engaging presentation on the ongoing stingray research project at CEI and ecosystem-driven approaches to conservation. Candice Brittain, Applied Scientific Research Department Head, spoke about the recent assessment of the queen conch nursery ground in South Eleuthera. Her presentation was followed by a workshop on conservation of queen conch in The Bahamas, led by the Bahamas National Trust. Georgie Burruss, Research Assistant for the Flats Ecology and Conservation Program, presented new findings on marine debris in the Exuma Sound and plastic ingestion by pelagic sportfish. She also gave a talk on studies conducted by the Flats Program that have aided in developing the Best Handling Practices for bonefish and protection of critical bonefish habitat. Finally, Eric Schneider, graduate student at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, presented research he conducted at CEI on temperature change effects on juvenile and adult schoolmaster snapper.
ASAC provided a unique opportunity for networking between the local community, students, and researchers for sharing knowledge on ecosystems across The Bahamas. Researchers from CEI look forward to attending ASAC in 2018!
The invasion of lionfish on reefs of the West Atlantic has become an issue of critical concern. With eradication not possible, the silver lining is that lionfish are delicious. The You Slay, We Pay campaign was launched by Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick to support the development of a local lionfish market in The Bahamas. The Island School bought lionfish from local Bahamian fishers to consume in the dinning hall.
The slayer campaign initially ran through lobster closed season in 2014, as this is the time of year that many fishers will switch to conch harvesting, which is less lucrative as a fishery and increases pressure on the already overfished species. This trial lionfish season was so successful that in December of 2014 (during the closed grouper season) the lionfish You Slay, We Pay was launched all year round. Over 1500 lbs of lionfish were brought in throughout 2015, with new fishers joining regularly and more lionfish meals being enjoyed on campus. We hope that 2016 sees even more lionfish removed from the reefs and on the plate.
Over two semesters Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick and Alexio Brown led an Island School Research class focused on exploring and assessing the inland ponds of Eleuthera. These inland ponds are fragile and are under threat from human disturbance, but are rarely visited and poorly studied. The students assessed 16 sites across Eleuthera; 69% of the ponds were impacted by humans. In the few non-impacted sites, species that are new to Eleuthera were found.
Just last week, expert Professor Mary Wicksten of Texas A&M University confirmed Eleuthera is home to not one but two species of critically endangered cave shrimp, Parhippolyte sterreri and Barbouriacubensis.This further highlights the need for immediate conservation of the anchialine systems in order to protect this unique habitat and the life it supports. The ponds project is a new and exciting area of research for CEI. Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick presented the research at the 3rd International Symposium on Anchialine Ecosystems in 2015, and two of The Island School Bahamian students will present at the Abaco Science Alliance and the Bahamas National Natural History Conference in 2016. We hope to create awareness for this unique ecosystem and ensure its protection.
This year, 15 new marine parks were created in The Bahamas, bringing the country closer to their goal of protecting 20% of their coastal waters by 2020. The inclusion of several additions to the protected areas system, including The Marls of Abaco National Park, East Abaco Creeks National Park, and Cross Harbour National Park in Abaco, as well as the North Shore Gap National Park and the East Grand Bahama National Park, was influenced by bonefish research conducted in collaboration with CEI and other partnering institutions.
Specifically, bonefish telemetry projects were conducted around Grand Bahama for the N. Shore Gap National Park and the East Grand Bahama National Park. Also, CEI contributed data from tagged and released bonefish in Abaco - this research fed into the decision to protect the areas due to the presence of a healthy bonefish population and the economic potential of bonefishing as a major player in the tourism industry.