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Dr. Wicksten and underwater photographer Carol Cox of Port Saint Joe, Florida, have collaborated on a paper on the peculiar fauna found on artificial reefs sunk off northwestern Florida. The reefs have been settled by gorgonians (soft corals) that live along much of the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico--but the water usually is so murky that nobody can see them. The clear water off Mexico Beach allows first-hand observation of gorgonians and the small shrimp and snails that live with them. These small animals rarely have been seen or collected. Our studies suggest that some of the small animals take up pigments and noxious chemicals from their hosts, but others rely on transparency to protect them from fishes that might eat them.
Dr. Wicksten's massive (407pages, plus figures and plates) on the crabs, shrimp and crayfishes of the west coast of the U.S.A. and northern Mexico is near completion at last!
Graduate students Terrence (T.J.) Boyle and Eric Rosch continue their work on behavior and population ecology of fiddler crabs (Uca spp.) and the white-fingered mud crab (Rhithropanopeus harrisii) along the coast of Texas and in the lab. Assisted by undergraduate students, they have conducted experiments on mate choice and possible chemosensory cues used by the fiddlers, and competition between the crabs and crayfishes in Texas reservoirs. Angela Witmer will graduate with a Ph.D. this May after conducting a study of beach biota before and after Hurricane Ike.
With the help of undergraduate assistants, we maintain marine aquaria used for demonstration in Butler 201. Our large murex snail (Hexaplex fulvescens) now has been in our aquarium for over 25 years! Unusual animals currently on display include a basket whelk (Nassarius fossatus) with unusually rapid responses to food, a plumose anemone (Metridium sp.) that tends to move across the bottom of the aquarium, a purse crab (Persephona mediterranea) that digs into sand and a fluorescent coral. Tubastrea coccinea.
During December 2010, Dr. Wicksten presented a summary of some of her work toward the decapod manuscript at the meeting of the Southern California Association of Marine Invertebrate Taxonomists in Carson, California. This gave her the opportunity to view some questionable specimens (variants of the same species, misidentified or perhaps an undescribed species?) She also was able to obtain specimens of two fairly common hermit crabs described prior to 1921. Both of these crabs were described in one paragraph, excluding many features used in hermit crab classification today. One had been illustrated with a very bad drawing of two eyestalks (not diagnostic!)!, the other in a blurred photograph of a very dead crab. These two crabs have been re-described in detail and illustrated both with color photographs and detailed drawings.
Cooperating with Dr. Wafaa Salaam of the Suez Canal University in Egypt, she has been exploring why some spider crabs decorate themselves—they deliberately attach bits of algae, sponges, etc. to hooked setae of the exoskeleton—and why other simply tolerate a heavy coating of barnacles, sponges, etc. that attach on their own. Some of Dr. Salaam's crabs carry a weight of encrusting organisms that exceeds the weight of the crab, but the buoyancy of the sea water does not inhibit their movement. At present, we do not know if this is a regional phenomenon or if certain genera of crabs generally allow encrustation rather than decorating, and what adaptive benefits might accrue to each strategy of camouflage. Dr. Salaam's work is hindered by the Suez Canal being a militarily sensitive area, where underwater cameras are prohibited.
Graduate students T.J. Boyle and Eric Rosch just returned from a field trip from the eastern border of Texas to Mississippi, collecting fiddler crabs for genetic comparison. They discovered populations of the green fiddler, Uca virens, in Louisiana and a few additional sites for collecting species that are relatively common in Texas. They had to suspend work at one potential collecting site when a pair of large eyes slowly emerged from a nearby channel, indicating the presence of a large, curious alligator.