SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 17, October 2016 - Page 81

ecosystems,” Van Bonn continues. “We have a masters student, Dr. Jimmy Johnson, who is studying the microbiome of this system. He starts by collecting samples from when there is nothing but water in here, then when we get the filter up and running, then when we put the cownose rays in there and then when we let people come in. He’s looking at the health parameters of the rays. What changes? What drives those changes? What does it mean for their health? He’s looking not only at the microbiome of the water, but the microbiome associated with the rays—their GI tract, skin, and gill microbiomes.”

Van Bonn takes me to one of their clinical labs where the Senior Clinical Laboratory Technician, Frank Oliaro, is doing a post-mortem on an angelfish. Oliaro had taken a sample from behind its gills to look at under a microscope.

I put both eyes to the eyepieces of the microscope. The tiny swab of gill tissue is bursting with activity, layers upon layers of blue-violet particles swimming: the microbiome behind the gills. Some of the moving particles are circular, some elongated.

“Those are actually protozoa.” Van Bonn is looking at the same swab on a computer display hooked up to the microscope. “Protozoa are little living animals. They are many times bigger than bacteria itself. In fact they are probably grazing on bacteria.”

“Would you see that normally?”

“Yeah, but it’s all about balance. If you see a couple, you would expect to see that. The question is, does that represent what’s happening in the habitat? Or is this after the animal has died?”

To figure that out they’d look at the other animals in that habitat and samples of the water. Each step in this research drives discoveries that can support human health and the health of our ecosystems. “We look for what things are under the control of the people that make a difference for the entire system, starting with the microscopic critters that call the water home,” Van Bonn explains. “And how can we do a better job of taking care of them?”

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