In 1972, Dr. Mary Rice made a decision that changed how biologists see the Atlantic coast. As the newly appointed director of a small marine station in Fort Pierce, FL, Rice decided to open her doors to the Smithsonian’s scientific community and research fellows, enabling them to expand their work from specimen collections, to in-depth studies of organisms in their natural habitats. At the station, Rice established the Life Histories Program, which tracks the growth and development of marine invertebrates. For Rice, the Smithsonian Marine Station became an ideal place to research these fascinating creatures and the transformations they experience as they grow from egg to adult.
Mary was most interested in sipunculans, or ‘peanut’ worms, a family of marine worms found worldwide from the shore to the deep sea. She studied the reproduction and development of the many sipunculan larval forms, and then compared them to the development of other worms, followed by more distantly related invertebrates. Through her research, Dr. Rice hoped to gain a better understanding of marine invertebrate development as a whole, and the role it plays in their ability to reproduce, disperse and adapt to different environments.
Rice continued her research for 36 years, until her retirement in 2002. Eight years later, Michael Boyle arrived at the Smithsonian Marine Station, first to learn directly from Mary’s extensive experience (she was still working even though long retired), and most recently, as a staff scientist to manage the future course of research in the Life Histories Program. Like Rice, Dr. Boyle’s research focuses on the life histories of marine invertebrates, with a special interest in the evolution and development of sipunculans.
This research goes well beyond pure scientific curiosity. Throughout their life histories, invertebrates have a huge impact on the ocean ecosystems we rely upon to feed us and sustain our planet. The large animals we harvest are reliant on the tiny plankton as a food source directly or indirectly depending on their feeding strategies. Furthermore, many of the non-motile adult invertebrates, such as corals, oysters and even some worms, actually form reef structures that shield our coastlines from storms and erosion, simultaneously serving as habitats for all sorts of ocean life.
To gain a better understanding of the many roles marine invertebrates play in the ocean ecosystem, the Smithsonian began its StreamCode project. Inspired and coauthored by Michael Boyle and Karen Osborn, and with the passionate dedication of several Smithsonian scientists from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology (IZ) and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the StreamCode project is focused on documenting the stunning diversity of microscopic invertebrates in the water column along Florida’s Atlantic coast. With the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce as a base of operations, this team of scientists has set out to collect zooplankton from the Florida Current region of the Gulf Stream.
With a multipronged approach using high-resolution photography, DNA sequencing of genetic ‘barcodes’, and detailed descriptions of microscopic diversity, marine scientists will begin to obtain a clearer picture of which planktonic invertebrates move with and survive in the Gulf Stream.
From the collections made for this study, more detailed life history studies will allow us to investigate the adaptations of these invertebrates to a broad assault of environmental challenges. Following in the footsteps of Dr. Mary Rice, Dr. Boyle’s efforts in the Life Histories Program, along with help from IZ and NMFS scientists, may give us a more detailed understanding of the development and dispersal of meroplanktonic animals as they surf the currents of the world’s open ocean.
By Robert Boyd, Department of Invertebrate Zoology Intern and Masters student at American University