Paul Sikkel, a field marine biologist at Arkansas State University, loves Reggae great Bob Marley. So when he identified a new species of blood sucking parasite native to Caribbean coral reefs, he decided to name it in Marley's honor:
I named this species, which is truly a natural wonder, after Marley because of my respect and admiration for Marley's music. Plus, this species is as uniquely Caribbean as was Marley.
Sikkel has actually been studying the little creatures for years, but recently had a hunch that this particular species had not yet been identified and catalogued. Sure enough, his isopods turned out to be an undocumented species, giving Sikkel the right to choose their name. Over 80 percent of the species found in the richness of coral environments are parasites; gnathiid isopods are among the "most ecologically important" of them because of their link to fish disease transmission.
The species, Gnathia marleyi, belongs to the Gnathiid family of crustaceans. The gnathiids hide in the coral sponges, or amongst the rubble and algae on coral reefs, waiting for fish to come by in search of a meal. Like the ticks we know on land, these small creatures attach themselves to their host, sucking enough blood to last their entire lifetime: it is believed that the gnathiids do not eat as adults, but drop back to the coral reef to give birth to the next generation before they starve and die.
As Caribbean coral reefs crumble, Gnathia marleyi populations have grown. Sikkel and his team are trying to understand the effects of pressures like over-fishing and reef degradation on the health of the marine environment. "We suspect that coral degradation leads to more available habitat for external parasites to ‘launch attacks' on host fishes," he said. "And as the number of potential host fish decreases, each remaining host will become more heavily parasitized."
As blood-borne diseases further threaten fish populations, Sikkel's team are also looking for links between the blood-sucking gnathiids and a type of fish malaria that weakens fish immune systems.
Bob Marley sang: "Don't worry about a thing, every little thing is gonna be alright." We wonder if he would still agree?