This spring, cruising through the muddy waters of Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana, Troy University biology professor Dr. Stephen Landers and partner Dr. Martin Sørensen of Denmark were on the hunt for dragons.
Not so much the fire-breathing variety, however. Think smaller, muddier, and much less ferocious.
Since 2012, Landers and Sørensen, of the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen, have been studying representatives of the phylum Kinorhyncha, also known as mud dragons. These tiny invertebrates, most less than a millimeter long, live in the sediment on the ocean floor, subsisting on a diet of detritus and other digestible matter scrounged from the sea floor.
The may be small, but mud dragons play an important role in the gulf ecosystem, and studying them has revealed much about the region's biodiversity.
"My collaboration with [Sørensen] is aimed at examining the Gulf of Mexico diversity of this group, which was almost unstudied until we began our work together in 2012," Landers said. "Martin is very sought after as a colleague, as he has worked on the kinorhynch diversity all over the world. In the past he has collaborated with scientists in Spain, Korea, Brazil, the Solomon Islands, Turkey, Florida, and now Alabama."
In March, Sørensen and his graduate student Phillip Randsø, returned to the Troy Campus to reteam with Landers for a survey of mud dragon populations along the Gulf shoreline. During a previous visit in 2014, Landers and Sørensen struck out while attempting to find mud dragons off the Alabama Coast.
"Martin came to TROY two years ago and we visited the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, but we got skunked because the salinity was too low in the Mobile Bay area," Landers said.
This spring, they had better luck in Louisiana, taking numerous samples of mud dragons that appear to be different from the ones the team has collected deep off shore.
The findings point to a wide diversity of microscopic life in the Gulf, affected by a variety of factors including changing salinity and pollution.
Landers and Sørensen were recipients of a 2012 grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative which funded sampling and research of the Gulf meiofauna populations following the oil spill. Their work has gathered hundreds of samples and led to the naming of two new mud dragon species in 2014, with two more species descriptions being published this year.