Former UVI professor names species for Bob Marley
Published: July 17, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - A new species found in Virgin Islands waters has been named after Bob Marley by former University of the Virgin Islands professor Paul Sikkel.
Gnathia marleyi is a gnathiid isopod, a small parasitic crustacean that feeds off the blood of certain reef fish in the Caribbean the way a mosquito or tick feeds on mammals.
Sikkel said he has been a longtime fan of Marley's music, and he wanted to honor the memory of the late reggae artist by naming a new species after him.
"To me, it's a tribute," he told The Daily News.
A marine ecologist, Sikkel joined the UVI faculty in 1994 to teach and conduct research. He spent four years in the territory, but even after leaving to join the faculty at Arkansas State University, he returned to the Virgin Islands every summer to do his research.
"I got into studying parasites by studying fish behavior," he said.
Sikkel said he first noticed the parasite while studying the spawning activity of damselfish in Barbados. Damselfish spawn at dawn, and he was watching the female damselfish interrupt their spawning to go to a "cleaning station." A cleaning station is a location on a coral reef where shrimp or small fish - such as gobies or wrasses - clean larger reef fish of parasites, dead skin cells and bacteria.
After some additional field work, Sikkel found an isopod parasite that was most active in the early dawn hours. That explained why the spawning damselfish were bothered by the creature.
Sikkel has specific reef sites that he returns to each year in Culebra, Guana Island in the British Virgin Islands and St. Thomas and St. John.
The Gnathia marleyi is about 1 mm long and takes a very small amount of blood from the fish host. In normal conditions, a fish might be found with just a few of the parasitic crustaceans on it.
"Ours are something in the hundreds for one fish," Sikkel said.
He said loss of habitat and overfishing are reducing the number of reef fish, which reduces the food supply for the parasite, leading to more parasites per fish.
While a few parasites are not harmful to the fish, hundreds of them can be, he said.
At first, Sikkel assumed the parasite he was seeing on the fish was a cataloged species. Then he began to wonder.
He sent samples to a member of his research team, Nico Smit of North-West University in South Africa.
"He said it looks like a new species," Sikkel said.
He then bred a male and female and raised the offspring through a full life cycle.
"It took about a month to get all the way through the life cycle," he said.
Sikkel placed the species in the gnathiids genus, and gave it a name - Gnathia marleyi - after the singer.
His research was peer-reviewed by other scientists and a paper was published in the scientific journal "Zootaxa" detailing the new species.
Sikkel said he understands why some people think it is strange that a blood-sucking parasite would be named after Bob Marley, but as a scientist it is the highest form of flattery.
He said Barack Obama has a lichen named after him, and a similar parasite is named after the composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
"I wanted to name the species after something that is uniquely Caribbean," he said.
He also wanted to show the connection between the arts and sciences and show his appreciation of other art forms.
"As a scientist, parasites are the coolest things on the planet," Sikkel said. "It's a new species, and it's considered an honor to have something named after you."
While his current work is funded largely by the National Science Foundation, much of the first research he used to determine if he had discovered a new species was done while at UVI with support from the V.I. Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.
When he returns to the territory each summer to conduct his research, he uses the UVI Center for Marine and Environmental Studies facilities and hires local fishermen and students to help.
In addition to the Gnathia marleyi research, he also is researching lionfish in the Pacific.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com.