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Karen Chan

How do larvae swim
in a hot-tub world?

July 18, 2014

Bocas del Toro, Panama

A visiting researcher uses a movie set studio to record how the larvae of sea urchins, starfish, shellfish and corals respond to conditions in a changing ocean.

Karen Chan carefully fills custom-made Plexiglas chambers with warm seawater, flips on the spotlights, hits the record button and drapes a dark curtain over her makeshift movie set. A laptop displays a live feed of many thousands of tiny, white snail larvae slowly swimming in the square tubes. This experiment could shed light on how climate change may affect iconic coastal creatures including urchins, starfish, shellfish and corals.

Chan is interested in how larvae swim — and how they respond to different environmental conditions, including the warming and sometimes oxygen-depleted waters found around the Bocas Del Toro archipelago in Panama's eastern Caribbean. The larval phase of many sea creatures is the only time when they can disperse, influencing where they will spend their less-mobile adult lives. Swimming in an oxygen-depleted hot tub could seriously limit this opportunity.

"The ultimate goal is to understand how marine organisms respond to multiple interacting stressors related to global climate change," said Chan, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Our work helps understand where members of the coastal community come from and how they get there. If we are interested in sharing our rich marine biodiversity with future generations, understanding the larval life-stage is important."

Chan first visited STRI for a taxonomy course as a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar. She decided to continue research at Bocas by teaming up with station director Rachel Collin. "Rachel is an amazing collaborator and we have many common interests," said Chan. "I am also amazed by the diversity of the tropics and am so excited about working here."

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