Dispatches from Brazil: Investigation at Praia do Forte Beach

By Sara LaJeunesse
Research Penn State

This is the second of a series of three dispatches from Northeast Brazil, where researchers at Penn State, the University of Georgia and Universidade Federal de Campina Grande are embarking on a quest to document the uniqueness of Brazil's coral species by studying the symbiotic algae that they require to survive. In addition, they will investigate the evolutionary biology of the coral-algal symbiosis to see if they can uncover secrets about the organisms' ancient histories and their potential to withstand the ravages of climate change. Here, freelance writer Sara LaJeunesse documents the team's exploration of Praia do Forte beach.

Dispatch 2

It is our second day in Salvador, and Todd and Bill are eager to begin their work, so we head to one of Salvador’s scenic beaches, Praia do Forte. Today is a holiday and the beach is crowded. When we arrive, the tide is out, exposing a rocky intertidal zone with hundreds of crystal-clear tide pools in all shapes and sizes. Tiny tropical fish — yellow ones with black and white stripes and blue ones with aquamarine spots — swim around in these little refuges. I find one with a sandy bottom that is just big enough for me to climb in and stretch out. The comfortable, sun-heated water comes up to my chest and I relax there for a moment while Todd and Bill set up their equipment.

With the tide so low, many of the corals either are exposed to the air or occur in shallow water; therefore, Todd and Bill decide to snorkel rather than SCUBA dive. I climb out of my warm bath to help out, and before we make it to the ocean-side edge of the tide-pool zone, Todd finds his first sample. A pale-pink patch of coral glistens in the sunlight.

“It’s a species in the genus Siderasterea,” says Todd, who adds that the genus is common in the Caribbean. He thinks he knows what species the coral is, but he does not know what species of algae it harbors. He uses a small hammer and a chisel to remove a tiny piece of the coral and places the piece, along with a salt preservation solution, into a vial. According to Todd, the small samples that he removes do not damage the coral colonies. “It’s similar to removing a small branch from a tree,” he says.

We make our way to the edge of the tide-pool zone and put on our masks and snorkels. Getting out into the deeper water proves to be tricky as we fight the waves that surge landward and try to avoid slipping on the rocks, which are covered with algae, spiny black sea urchins, and other hidden creatures.

Once in the water, we swim around looking for other species of animals that contain the symbiotic algae, Symbiodinium. Holding a dozen or so plastic Ziploc bags attached together by a plastic ring, I follow Todd and Bill around and help them place samples into the bags. The corals in this area are sparse, but Bill finds two species of zoanthids, which are tiny sea anemones that live in colonies. Zoanthids contain Symbiodinium, so Bill decides to collect some of them. “In other regions, like the Indo-Pacific region, zoanthids are very particular about the species of algae with which they associate,” he explains, “so we are eager to find out if the Brazilian zoanthids also tightly associate with their own unique species of algae.”

In addition to these organisms, we also see a plump sea cucumber; a skinny, black moray eel; and a fluorescent-yellow sea hare, which is a large marine slug. The habitat at this location is not the best for coral, and Todd and Bill are a little disappointed with their finds, but they are looking forward to visiting the reefs at João Pessoa with their Brazilian colleagues later this week. João Pessoa, which lies to the north of Salvador, is home to Brazil’s most extensive reef system.

A Family Affair

In the middle of the day, we take a break from our work and meet Lauro, Ludmila and several other members of their family at a local restaurant. In Brazil, lunch is the most important meal of the day. The waiters bring out carafes of pineapple juice and fish-ball appetizers, which are like hush puppies stuffed with crabmeat. Next they bring platters of sizzling goat meat and beef steaks garnished with grilled onions. They also serve bowls of rice, mashed potatoes, fried bananas and pinto beans mixed with celery, onion and ground manioc, a type of starchy tuber that is a staple in Brazil. Condiments include a mild tomato salsa and another type of salsa that is so spicy I can handle only a drop or two of the juice.

The family is celebrating Ludmila’s 6-year-old daughter Julia's baptism, which took place that morning. Although Catholics normally baptize their children when they are babies, Ludmila was waiting for an opportunity to include Susan in the ceremony, since she will be Julia’s godmother.

After lunch, we have chocolate cake, baked by Julia’s paternal grandmother, and coffee, which comes in a thimble-sized cup and is heavily sweetened. The sugar gives Julia a boost of energy. Pleased to be the center of attention, she passes out paper and colorful crayons to all of the adults and asks us to draw pictures. Then, Julia speaks directly to me in fast Portuguese. Having no idea what she is saying, I draw a picture of a cat, which seems to satisfy her.

A New Discovery

Eventually, Todd and Bill decide that it is time to return to the fieldwork. We head back to the beach, which is crowded now with sunbathers. The rhythmic beating of drums accompanied by a melodic sort of chanting permeates the air as a nearby group of Salvadorians celebrates the holiday.

Todd and Bill collect several more samples of the Siderasterea coral and the zoanthids. As the afternoon wanes and the tide begins to rush in, they spot one new symbiotic species, a sea anemone that they think might be in the genus Anthopleura. Like corals, this animal is rendered photosynthetic by the Symbiodinium algae that live inside its cells. Todd thinks that the Anthopleura algae he found likely will contain a species of Symbiodinium that is unknown to scientists. Such a discovery of a new species would not be Todd’s first. As part of his investigation of the ecology and evolution of coral symbionts he already has characterized more than 200 Symbiodinium species.

“When microscopists first observed microorganisms, they were astounded by the magnitude of unseen biological diversity,” says Todd. "But even though microscopes allow us to see life at small scales, Symbiodinium species look very much alike, so appreciating the true amount of diversity in this group is not possible using microscopy. For example, while only five or six species of Symbiodinium have been described using traditional microscope techniques, molecular genetic techniques have allowed us to identify hundreds of Symbiodium species, each one of which is vital to the survival of its coral host species."

According to Todd, Brazil is one of the world’s most remote frontiers for the study of Symbiodinium. “Some scientists have studied the diversity of corals in Brazil, but for the most part, no one has studied the algae,” says Todd. “Understanding this diversity is important for many reasons. Ecosystems with high diversity are more resilient to environmental changes, and certain species of Symbiodinium may someday be important in the evolutionary responses of reef corals to climate change.”

By the end of the day, we have collected many samples of coral, zoanthid and sea anemone. Todd and Bill hope that these samples will reveal new and interesting types of Symbiodinium, but they won’t find out what they have until they process the samples.

North to João Pessoa

Tomorrow we board another plane for Recife, where we will rent a car and drive to João Pessoa. The reefs in this region support some of the greatest diversity of marine life south of the mouth of the Amazon River. This diversity includes sharks, and I have read that the region experiences a higher-than-normal rate of shark attacks. In fact, the area is so dangerous that surfing has been outlawed. This information has me very worried, but Bill assures me that sharks usually do not bother scuba divers. They are more likely to attack a surfer or snorkeler who is floating on top of the water. This only makes me feel a little bit better.

I am not superstitious, nor am I religious, but as I prepare for bed I decide that it can’t hurt to say a little prayer to Iemanjá, a mermaid-like goddess that is worshipped by Brazilians who adhere to the African-influenced Candomblé and Umbanda religions. Iemanjá is the Queen of the Ocean and is said to protect fishermen. I ask her to extend her protection to me, at least for a few days.

* * *

For more information regarding the entire series of dispatches, including a map and photo slideshows, visit http://www.rps.psu.edu/explorations/brazil.

Todd LaJeunesse is assistant professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science, tcl3@psu.edu.

Sara LaJeunesse is a freelance writer based in State College, Pa.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010