Marine mammals get a lot of attention in pop science because of their charismatic nature, but since our lab is mainly focused on coral reefs, marine mammals can sometimes be overlooked!
Hi, my name is Stephanie, and I am the one member in the Vega Thurber lab that has decided to study the microbiology of marine mammals. So, I like to explore the marine mammal side of things. For instance, Ryan is now diving in the Red Sea at KAUST, sampling and assessing coral diversity while surrounded by (but ignoring) frolicking dolphins. Through Ryan’s dolphin watch reports, I became curious of what other marine mammals Ryan may ignore in the Red Sea.
Doing a little research, it is easy to discover that the Red Sea is home to many marine mammals, but I was mostly surprised that it was home to the dugong, which roams throughout the Indo-West Pacific Ocean. The dugong belongs to the same order as the manatee, but has been the only member in its family, Dugongidae, since the Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction in the 18th century. The dugong itself is not listed as an endangered species, but is considered vulnerable. Unlike corals, dugongs have a tendency to swim around, which makes population counts difficult. One new way to solve this problem is by utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles, but this technology is still work in progress.
In spite of our inability to count all living dugongs, scientist can still use fancy math models to predict the dangers these animals may encounter. The dugong like many marine mammals, including the most endangered marine mammal (the vaquita, a porpoise), is threatened by overfishing. Initially this sounded a bit counterintuitive to me since dugongs are mainly herbivores, but will snack on the occasional jellyfish or some delicious shellfish. Instead, overfishing affects dugongs because it leads to the destruction of seagrass beds, which is where dugongs like to swim and eat. Dugongs are not alone in the plight that is overfishing. Overfishing causes ecological, social, and economic problems. One way to help this problem is by purchasing sustainable seafood, which is made easier by using an app by Seafood Watch.
Since I am a microbiologist I would like to end this post with some microbiology. Strangely, there are few studies that investigate the microbiome of many marine mammals, but it turns out that there is a study on the dugong gut! I know very exciting! Gut microbiomes can be studied by examining fresh feces, thus in this study scientist collected feces from wild and captive dugongs and extracted the DNA. Using DGGE techniques, they concluded that captive and wild dugongs have different bacteria communities. With captive dugongs having fewer bacteria types, which can be considered unhealthy.
I hope you guys enjoyed this marine mammal post and expect some more in the future.