Underwater Eden: Dispatches from Northeast Brazil

Sara LaJeunesse
November 14, 2008
map of Brazil

Location of the research station: João Pessoa in the State of Paraíba

The vast Amazon rainforest teeming with exotic animals. Beautiful, bronzed people basking on white-sand beaches. Carnival-goers sipping lime-and-sugar-infused Caipirinhas while swaying to the rhythms of samba. Brazil is known for many things, but the country only recently is gaining recognition for one of its most important natural treasures: its coral reefs.

Coral communities worldwide are suffering from diseases, pollution and global warming, but Brazil’s reef system is one of the few that has managed to escape noticeable damage – at least for now. 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.

man in SCUBA gear examines a coral colony with clipboard in hand
Matt Aschaffenburg, University of Delaware

Assistant professor of biology Todd LaJeunesse surveys coral colonies.

For 10 days in November, the scientists will swim along the reef-line— that border between the protected inner shore and the high seas— taking biopsies of coral tissue that contain the symbiotic algae. They then will analyze the samples in a laboratory. The team’s expectations for identifying unique combinations of coral and algae are high. After all, the region is celebrated for its abundant, endemic sea life, including over 14 species of sharks; the scientists are keenly aware of the need to watch their backs while they work on the ocean bottom.

Team member Sara LaJeunesse, a freelance science writer, will be sending regular dispatches on the expedition’s progress. Join her as she and her teammates explore Brazil’s underwater Eden.

Dispatches from Northeast Brazil: Dispatch 1

“So…how do you say ‘hello’ in Portuguese?” Todd LaJeunesse, a Penn State assistant professor of biology, asks me as we coast into the Salvador airport after an eight-hour overnight flight from Miami. For the next 12 days I will be accompanying Todd and his collaborator Bill Fitt, a professor of biology at the University of Georgia, on a research trip to collect and identify species of corals and the symbiotic algae that live inside their cells. Fortunately, we are accompanied by Bill’s wife Susan Quinlan, a professor of romance languages at the University of Georgia, a frequent visitor to Brazil, and a fluent Portuguese speaker.

Don’t Feed the Animals

We arrive at the hotel at 9:00 a.m. and I am eager to unload my baggage and find something to eat. Since I slept through the airline meals, I haven’t eaten for at least 15 hours. I meet up with Todd, Bill and Susan in the hotel’s restaurant and we dine on a meal of rice mixed with coconut, ripe mango, papaya, pineapple, carambola, caju (cashew) fruit, and freshly squeezed guava juice.

A sign near our table reads, “Don’t feed the animals,” and we soon find out why. A three-foot-long iguana appears and ambles toward us with an expectant eye. Despite the sign, we decide to toss the reptile a few small chunks of papaya, which it devours viciously, like it’s playing a scene from Jurassic Park .

After the meal, having hardly slept over the past 24 hours, Bill and Susan head back to their room for a nap, and Todd and I head to the pool. Our plan is to reunite later in the afternoon for a trip to Salvador’s historic downtown area. The coral-reef research will begin tomorrow.

Life is Good

Although I’m usually careful about taking too much sun, recent research suggests that we in northern climates do not get enough vitamin D. I decide not to feel guilty about spending a little time basking in the equatorial sunshine.

Todd and I find lounge chairs under a patch of shade cast by a cluster of coconut palms. The temperature is toasty: 85 degrees Fahrenheit. But a gentle breeze makes the experience comfortable. In the pool, a trio of muscle-clad Brazilian men tosses a volleyball back and forth, while a young mother sporting a thong bikini encourages her child to jump into the water. Their bronzed athleticism makes me even more aware of my own Pennsylvania pallor. I vow to visit the hotel’s spa for a manicure and pedicure at my soonest opportunity—it’s the least I can do to perk up my pasty white appearance. Lounging beside me reading a book on the history of early microbe hunters, Todd is equally pale. But at least he looks hip in a pair of sporty, black Ray Bans.

Underwater Eden

As we bask in the shade, Todd begins to tell me about his
research. Coral reefs worldwide are suffering from global warming, he says, because higher-than-normal ocean temperatures kill the symbiotic algae that live inside the cells of corals and, thus, also kill the coral animal. Because local ocean currents here prevent the water from heating, however, the corals in Brazil have been relatively unaffected.

“There are very few pristine coral reefs left in the world,” says Todd. “While Brazil’s reefs certainly suffer from pollution and other human impacts, they have not yet been bleached by warm ocean waters and, therefore, they are better off than many reefs.”

Brazil’s reefs are special for another reason, too: They contain many species of coral that do not occur anywhere else in the world. “I expect to see species of symbiont that I’ve never seen before,” says Todd.

The reason Brazil has so many endemic species, he explains, is that the region has been geographically separated from the rest of the world for millions of years. Blocked off from the Pacific Ocean by the Isthmus of Panama, Brazil’s reefs are also separated from the Caribbean Ocean by the vast estuary of the Amazon River. “These barriers prevent the exchange of genes,” says Todd. “Brazil’s reefs have been isolated for such a long time that evolution has created new and unique species there.”

Over the next ten days, Todd and Bill plan to collect small fragments of as many coral species as they can find. They then will work with Brazilian biologists to identify these animals. Returning to their own labs in the United States, they will next extract the corals’ symbiotic algae (genus Symbiodinium). Using a molecular genetic technique he has developed, Todd can not only identify species of Symbiodinium, but also determine how these species are related to one another and pinpoint when they evolved into separate species.

European Heritage

At 2:00 p.m. our group meets in the lobby of the hotel. We are greeted by Susan’s Brazilian colleague Lauro, as well as Lauro’s daughter Ludmila and his granddaughter Julia. Together, we will head to downtown Salvador to see some of the historic city’s highlights.

I hop into Ludmila’s car, trusting this new-found friend to deliver us safely downtown. The drivers are aggressive; the traffic unlike anything I’ve seen in even the most crowded cities of the United States. As we navigate the chaos looking for a place to park, Ludmila explains some of the history of Salvador.

“Salvador was founded by the Portuguese in 1549,” she says, “and many of the buildings reflect this colonial period.” The Portuguese influence is particularly prominent in the Pelourinho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where many of the old buildings have been preserved. The city’s baroque churches and colonial houses are intricately carved and painted in pastel pinks, yellows, and blues.

African Heritage

Following its establishment, Salvador became a hub for the importation of African slaves to work in sugar cane fields and mills. Aspects of traditional African cultures, including religion, music, and dance, are well-preserved here.

In the central plaza, Terreiro de Jesus, we witness an example of this African influence. Two black men, circled by about eight more men, perform capoeira, a mixture of dance, gymnastics, and martial arts that originated in modern-day Angola, the homeland of many of Salvador’s former slaves. I decide to photograph this amazing display of strength and flexibility, which consists of graceful kicks, flips, and cartwheels. As I ready my camera, however, he men see me, give me a dirty look, and cease their activity. Later, Susan explains that they were likely offended that I had not offered to pay them for taking their photos.

I next encounter a small boy around age 10 who follows me for half a block, hand outstretched, begging for change. Although Brazil’s economy is one of the world’s 10 largest, the vast majority of the country’s inhabitants are poor. The poorest among them live in favelas, shantytowns made up of ramshackle brick dwellings built in spurts as residents can earn money. Thus, whole favela neighborhoods look like construction zones—no building permits required—which could easily collapse.

Exhaustion Sets In

After several hours of sightseeing, we head back to the hotel. We are sleep-deprived and utterly exhausted, though we muster up enough energy to sample a caipirinha cocktail, a Brazilian specialty made of sugar cane rum, sugar, and fresh-squeezed limes. We relax for a few moments to the sounds of a live bossa nova singer. Then we head to bed.

Dispatches from Northeast Brazil: 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.

photo of a sea anemone
Credit Todd LaJeunesse

A sea anemone, which may be in the genus Antrhropleura, contains photosynthetic algae in the genus Symbiodinum.

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 Zip-loc 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 the baptism of Ludmila’s six-year-old daughter Julia, 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 that 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 over 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.

Dispatch 3

This morning we wake early to get a head start on what will be a long day of fieldwork. We meet up with two Brazilian colleagues, Cristiane Francisca da Costa, a professor of biology at the Universidade Federal de Campina Grande, and Roberto Sassi, director of the Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas de Recursos do Mar (NEPREMAR) at the Universidade Federal da Paraíba. These two know where to find the greatest diversity of corals and other Symbiodinium -containing creatures in the region, and they have arranged for a boat to take us there.

When we arrive at the beach, I am amused to find that the boat is not a research vessel, but instead an old, wooden fishing boat decorated with a painting of Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. I am also surprised to find that it is moored about 40 yards offshore, rather than at a pier. We’ll have to wade out with our things held high above our heads to get to it.

We will pay the boat’s owner, Iran, to take us to two different reefs. A jolly fellow with a dark tan and a big belly, Iran speaks decent English, so he and I spend some time chatting. I ask him if he has seen any sharks lately and he shows me a large scar on his left elbow. “There are many dangerous sharks in these waters,” he says. This, however, is followed by a smirk and a giggle. I think he is pulling my leg.

man in SCUBA gear sitting on the side of a boat

Todd LaJeunesse

After half an hour, we arrive at our first location. The water here is a little cloudy, so I decide to swim rather than dive. Todd and Cristiane, however, must dive so that they can access the corals below. The two biologists spend about an hour in the water, returning to the boat with eight different species.

“At least four of these I have never collected before,” says Todd. “By adding them to the datasets of species we have collected elsewhere in the world, we can gain a better understanding of the total amount of diversity of Symbiodinium on the planet. We can also learn how this diversity is distributed, and how the host-symbiont associations have changed over time. Understanding how these symbiotic systems evolve can help us to predict how they will respond to major environmental stresses such as global warming.”

With everyone back on the boat, we make our way to the next location. This time, the reef is much larger and the water is clearer. Again Todd and Cristiane strap on their dive gear and step out over the boat’s side, landing with a splash. Their plan is to swim around the edge of the reef, looking for corals at a depth of about 12 feet, and then to swim over the top of the reef, which lies just a few feet under the water.

Because the water is so shallow and clear, Bill, Susan, and I decide to snorkel rather than dive. We will be able to see nearly as much as the divers do, and we won’t have to fuss with a bunch of gear. I decide to spend my time swimming on top of the reef where I hope the water is too shallow for sharks.

Under the Sea

From the boat, the reef looks like a giant creature crouched at the bottom of the sea. And it is a giant creature, in a way. Most corals reproduce by cloning themselves until they have formed enormous colonies of genetically identical individuals.

The scene from below the water, however, is completely different. What looked like a dark blob from the surface is a bright and sunny underwater paradise. Tiny black fish with purple faces dart in and out of the reef’s crevices; electric-blue tangs skirt the reef’s edge; and goby fish with their comical faces and protruding eyes attempt to blend in with the sand and rocks.

I see bits of live coral here and there, but most of the reef is topped with a lush, green plant that sways back and forth in the current. Bill tells me that this is green algae and its presence here signifies that the area contains nutrients, likely from the nearby river that passes through sugar cane fields on its way to the ocean.

Susan and I spend about an hour snorkeling, and although the water is about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, we feel a little cold, so we decide to get out. As we wait for the biologists to finish their work, Iran tells us stories. “I love the sea more than I love my own mother,” he says, “because even though I am a grown man, she feeds me, cleans me, and rocks me to sleep.”

Iran specializes in capturing lobsters, but he also uses a harpoon to catch fish. So many of Brazil’s coastal citizens make a living this way, and I realize that this is why the only creatures I saw while snorkeling were small reef fish. Iran tells us that when he was a boy, the ocean contained many more fish.

After a while, the research team returns to the boat. This time, they don’t have much to show for their efforts. Although the team did not find any new species at this site, they are happy to have replicate samples from two different sites. The lack of additional species at the second site also might indicate that the scientists found all of the possible symbiotic invertebrates in the area.

At Work in the Laboratory

After dinner, we head to the Universidade Federal da Paraíba to process the samples before they die. Several of Cristiane’s students have come to help and to learn from Todd and Bill how to prepare the samples for further analysis. While Todd and Bill have acquired a great deal of information from Cristiane and Roberto about Brazil’s corals and other symbiotic organisms, the Brazilians stand to benefit as well from this collaboration. Todd and Bill are among the world’s top experts in this field, and they have developed new technique to analyze the data.

The group identifies the species of corals in today’s catch and separates them into vials containing a special preservative. As they sort through the specimens, Todd explains to the Brazilians some techniques for rapidly identifying symbiont species for ecological studies, while Bill explains how they can dry out samples and weigh them. The heavier they are, he says, the more Symbiodinium they contain, and the healthier they are.


It is after 9:00 p.m. by the time we leave the laboratory. On our way back to the hotel, we reflect on the day’s work. Todd talks about how pleased he is to have collected some new species of coral, which he thinks contain new species of Symbiodinium, as well.

“The corals we found were scattered among the ruins of what was once a vast and vibrant reef,” says Todd. Coral reefs around the world are suffering from human impacts such as pollution and global warming. In northeastern Brazil, the corals were scraped from the reefs over 100 years ago, and piled on the beaches where they were burned to make lye for use in cement. Since that time, the coral reefs have recovered somewhat, and although their abundance remains low, the number of species is high.

The team says that they would like to work with Cristiane and Roberto in the future to investigate some of Brazil’s other reefs, especially those that are located much farther away from the land. Many of these reefs are rumored to contain vast numbers of thriving corals.

As we arrive at the hotel and begin to head to our separate rooms, Susan tells me that Iran had asked her if she thought that I might like to remain in Brazil with him. Laughing, I respond that although I wouldn’t mind staying in Brazil a little longer, I am not ready to commit myself to Iran. I have grown to love this amazing country and its wonderful people, but in my heart I long to return to State College. I have just heard from a friend that it is snowing there today.

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

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

Last Updated November 14, 2008