Sea anemones are ubiquitous members of marine ecosystems. Their ecological success has been attributed to their resilience and plasticity, as well as associations they achieve with other marine organisms. Despite this, sea anemones traditional classification has been neglected. As a consequence, understanding their morphological diversity and distribution remains very limited. In order to gain knowledge in those respects, the proposed research will study a highly abundant group of sea anemones with a worldwide distribution. More than 1000 individuals will be collected covering the distribution of 16 currently described species worldwide. A revision of the group will be accomplished using morphological and molecular approaches.
The combination of the field and descriptive components of this project will provide material to create excellent educational opportunities. Specifically, lectures will be developed for the curriculum of the NSF funded High School Science Research and Mentoring Program (SRMP), which exposes urban students from underrepresented groups to scientific research. A broader audience will be reached by developing educational materials that will be available in the public galleries of the AMNH and its Explorer web site. Furthermore, the educational materials will be available in Spanish for ESL learning and classroom activities.
Sea anemones are present in all marine ecosystems, from shallow water to the deep sea, from the tropic to the poles. Their success has been attributed to their plastic reproductive strategies, as well as the diversity of associations they achieve with other marine species. Despite these facts, sea anemones have been traditionally overlooked and their diversity has rarely been studied in a comprehensive way. Using an integrative approach, which combined traditional morphological descriptions and molecular biology techniques, this project focused on a group of sea anemones symbiotic with microalgae distributed in shallow marine environments worldwide. This study revealed that what was previously described as a group of 14 different species actually corresponds to a one single, widespread species. This species is widely known for saltwater aquarium keepers as the "brown glass anemone" (scientific name, Aiptasia pallida) because is considered a pest, commonly infesting and taking over saltwater aquaria. In addition, results support that this species is distinct enough to be considered a different genus. The morphological characters, molecular analyses, as well as the identity of the algal symbionts living inside these anemones further corroborate these results. The presence of a single species over disjoint distributions across different Oceans raises the question of whether these organisms dispersal has been enhanced via human intervention, such as ballast water or fouling.