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Underwater Eden: Dispatches from Northeast Brazil

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18 November 2008
LaJeunesse On Boat
LaJeunesse On Boat

Click here for more pictures from this expedition.

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.

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.
boat against Salvador skyline

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, the 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.

Click here for Dispatch 2 and Dispatch 3, as well as slideshows and more information about Brazil.

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