Raising Nemo: Parental care in the clown anemonefish

Clown anemonefish caring for their eggs.

Clown anemonefish caring for their eggs.

The activities are as follows:

When animals are born, some offspring are able to survive on their own, while others rely on parental care. Parental care can take many forms. One or both parents might help raise the young, or in some species other members of the group help them out. The more time and energy the parents invest, the more likely it is that their offspring will survive. However, parental care is costly for the parents. When a parent invests time, energy, and resources in their young, they are unable to invest as much in other activities, like finding food for themselves. This results in a tradeoff, or a situation where there are costs and benefits to the decisions that must be made. Parents must balance their time between caring for their offspring and other activities.

The severity of the tradeoff between parental care and other activities may depend on environmental conditions. For example, if there is a lot of food available, parents may spend more time tending to their young because finding food for themselves takes less time and energy. Scientists wonder if parents are able to adjust their parental care strategies in response to environmental changes.

Photo of Tina (left) with other members of her lab. The glowing blue tanks around them all contain anemonefish!

Photo of Tina (left) with other members of her lab. The glowing blue tanks around them all contain anemonefish!

Tina is a scientist studying the clown anemonefish. She is interested in how parental care in this species changes in response to the environment. She chose to study anemonefish because they use an interesting system to take care of their young, and because the environment is always changing in the coral reefs where they live.

Anemonefish form monogamous pairs and live in groups of up to six individuals. The largest female is in charge of the group. Only the largest male and female get to mate and take care of the young. Both parents care for eggs by tending them, mouthing the eggs to clean the nest and remove dead eggs, and fanning eggs with their fins to oxygenate them. A single pair may breed together tens or even hundreds of times over their lifetimes. But here is the crazy part – anemonefish can change their sex! If the largest female dies, the largest male changes to female, and the next largest fish in line becomes the new breeding male. That means that a single parent may have the opportunity to be a mother and a father during its lifetime.

Parents will fan the eggs to increase oxygen by the nest, or mouth them to remove dead eggs and clean the nest.

Parents will fan the eggs to increase oxygen by the nest, or mouth them to remove dead eggs and clean the nest.

On the reef, anemonefish groups also experience shifts in how much food is available. In years with lots of food, the breeding pair has lots of young, and in years with little food they do not breed as often. Tina presumed that food availability determines how much time and energy the parents invest in parental care behaviors. She collected data from 20 breeding pairs of fish, 10 of which she gave half rations of food, and 10 of which she gave full rations. The experiment ran for six lunar months. Every time a pair laid a clutch of eggs, Tina waited 7 days and then took a 15-minute video of the parents and their nest. She watched the videos and measured three parental care behaviors: mouthing, fanning, and total time spent tending for both males and females. Some pairs laid eggs more than once, so she averaged these behaviors across the six months of the experiment. Tina predicted that parents fed a full ration would perform more parental care behaviors, and for a longer amount of time, than parents fed a half ration.

Watch videos of the experimental trials, demonstrating the mouthing and fanning behaviors:

Featured scientist: Tina Barbasch from Boston University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4


barbasch_photoAbout Tina: I first became interested in science catching frogs and snakes in my backyard in Ithaca, NY. This inspired me to major in Biology at Cornell University, located in my hometown. As an undergraduate, I studied male competition and sperm allocation in the local spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. After graduating, I joined the Peace Corps and spent 2 years in Morocco teaching environmental education and 6 months in Liberia teaching high school chemistry. As a PhD student in the Buston Lab, I study how parents negotiate over parental care in my study system the clownfish, Amphiprion percula, otherwise known as Nemo.

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Won’t you be my urchin?

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The activities are as follows:

Imagine you are snorkeling on a coral reef! You see a lot of plants and animals living together. Some animals, such as sharks, are predators and eat other animals. Other animals, like anemones and the fish that live in them, are mutualists and protect each other from predators. There are also herbivores, such as urchins, on the reef that eat plants and algae. All of these species, and many more, need the coral reef to survive.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. When you look at a coral you may see what looks like one large rock. In fact, corals are made up of thousands of tiny animals, called polyps. Coral polyps are white but look brown and green because microscopic plant-like organisms, called zooxanthellae (a kind of algae), live inside them. Corals provide the microscopic algae a safe home, and in return the corals are able to feed on the excess sugars the algae produce from photosynthesis. But sadly, corals around the world are dying. Scientists are determined to figure out ways to save coral reef ecosystems by helping corals survive so they can continue to build important and diverse reef habitats.

Corals are habitat specialists and only like to live in certain places. However, the corals compete with other types of algae, like seaweed, for space to grow. Sarah is a marine biologist who is interested in corals because they are such important animals on the reef. She wanted to understand how to help the dying corals. She thought that when herbivores are present and are eating algae on the reef, the corals in turn have less competition for space and thus more room to grow.

Sarah set up an experiment where she put tiles in bins out on the reef. Tiles provided space for animals to grow, including corals. Sarah also put sea urchins in half of the bins. Sea urchins are important herbivores and one of the species that like to eat algae. The other half of the bins had no urchins so the algae would be free to grow there. She had 4 bins with urchins and 4 bins with no urchins. After a few months, Sarah counted how many corals were growing on tiles. She counted corals found in the bins with and without sea urchins. Because sea urchins eat algae, they should free up space for coral to grow. Sarah expected that more corals would grow on the tiles in sea urchin bins compared to the bins with no sea urchins.

B. Photograph of Agaricia juvenile on experimental substratum. C. Photograph of Porites juvenile on experimental substratum

B. Photograph of coral species Agaricia juvenile on experimental tile. C. Photograph of coral species Porites juvenile on experimental tile.

Featured scientist: Sarah W. Davies from University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 6.1

The lab webpage can be found here. There is one scientific paper associated with the research in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

Davies SW, MV Matz, PD Vize (2013) Ecological Complexity of Coral Recruitment Processes: Effects of Invertebrate Herbivores on Coral Recruitment and Growth Depends Upon Substratum Properties and Coral Species. PLOS ONE 8(9):e72830

After students have completed the Data Nugget, you can have them discuss the management implications of this research. Watch the news story below and have students consider how urchins can be used as a management tool to help restore coral reefs!

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Coral bleaching and climate change

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

The activities are as follows:

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. Coral reefs are home to many species of animals – fish, sharks, sea turtles, and anemones all use corals for habitat! Corals are white, but they look brown and green because certain types of algae live inside them. Algae, like plants, use the sun’s energy to make food. The algae that live inside the corals’ cells are tiny and produce more sugars than they themselves need. The extra sugars become food for the corals. At the same time, the corals provide the algae a safe home. The algae and corals coexist in a relationship where each partner benefits the other, called a mutualism: these species do better together than they would alone.

When the water gets too warm, the algae can no longer live inside corals, so they leave. The corals then turn from green to white, called coral bleaching. Climate change has been causing the Earth’s air and oceans to get warmer. With warmer oceans, coral bleaching is becoming more widespread. If the water stays too warm, bleached corals will die without their algae mutualists.

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Carly is a scientist who wanted to study coral bleaching so she could help protect corals and coral reefs. One day, Carly observed an interesting pattern. Corals on one part of a reef were bleaching while corals on another part of the reef stayed healthy. She wondered, why some corals and their algae can still work together when the water is warm, while others cannot?

Ocean water that is closer to the shore (inshore) gets warmer than water that is further away (offshore). Perhaps corals and algae from inshore reefs have adapted to warm water. Carly wondered whether inshore corals are better able to work with their algae in warm water because they have adapted to these temperatures. If so, inshore corals and algae should bleach less often than offshore corals and algae. Carly designed an experiment to test this. She collected 15 corals from inshore and 15 from offshore reefs in the Florida Keys. She brought them into an aquarium lab for research. She cut each coral in half and put half of each coral into tanks with normal water and the other half into tanks with heaters. The normal water temperature was 27°C, which is a temperature that both inshore and offshore corals experience during the year. The warm water tanks were at 31°C, which is a temperature that inshore corals experience, but offshore corals have never previously experienced. Because of climate change, offshore corals may experience this warmer temperature in the future. After six weeks, she recorded the number of corals that bleached in each tank.

 Featured scientist: Carly Kenkel from The University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.0

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

If your students are looking for more data on coral bleaching, check out HHMI BioInteractive’s classroom activity in which students use authentic data to assess the threat of coral bleaching around the world. Also, check out the two videos below!

  • Another BioInteractive video, appropriate for upper level high school classrooms. Visualizes the process of coral bleaching at different scales. Video includes lots of complex vocabulary about cells and the process of photosynthesis.

 

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