Bob Marley Fish Parasite from Caribbean Named, Gnathia Marleyi

Gnathia marleyi Parasitic Crustacean

Bob Marley has joined an elite club of having a biological species named after him. A small gnathiids parasitic crustacean blood feeder that infests fish in the shallow eastern Caribbean coral reefs, now known as Gnathia marleyi.

As adults, the parasites don’t eat. “We believe that adults subsist for two to three weeks on the last feedings they had as juveniles and then die, hopefully after they have reproduced,” Dr. Paul Sikkel, an assistant professor of marine ecology and a field marine biologist at Arkansas State University said in a statement.

Gnathiids, like the one named after Bob Marley, are the most common external parasites found in the Caribbean coral reefs. They are ecologically similar to land-based, blood-sucking ticks or disease-carrying mosquitoes, the biologist said.

“Gnathiids live on the ocean floor from pole to pole, and from shallow reefs to the abyss–and everywhere between. They are also the most important food item for cleaner fishes and thus key to understanding marine cleaning symbioses,” Sikkel said.

Dr. Paul Sikkel said in a statement, “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.”

He first discovered Gnathia marleyi about 10 years ago in the US Virgin Islands and figured that since it was so common, it would have already been described. He eventually sent the Bob Marley species to a member of his research team, Nico J. Smit of North-West University in South Africa, who then confirmed that it had previously been overlooked by taxonomists.

With coral reefs in the Caribbean dying due to diseases, Sikkel’s team is looking into whether or not there is a link with the gnathid, like the Bob Marley species. Like those blood-sucking land creatures, gnathids carrying diseases. The researchers said. “We suspect that coral degradation leads to more available habitat for external parasites to ‘launch attacks’ on host fishes and as the number of potential host fish decreases, each remaining host will become more heavily parasitized.”

“Our current work is focused on how changes in coral reef environments, such as coral bleaching, influences interactions between hosts and parasites,” said Sikkel. “We’re including in our studies any effects on cleaning organisms that remove parasites from hosts.”

“We are determining the role of Gnathia marleyi, which will help us understand the impacts of changes in coral reef habitat on the transmission of a fish disease called haemogregarines–a type of fish malaria that may weaken their immune systems through a reduction in certain blood cells.”

“Disease ecology is a rapidly maturing field in marine science,” said Michael Lesser, a program director in NSF’s Biological Oceanography Program. “To advance this field, scientists must identify which organisms are the main players in disease transmission in oceans.”

Lesser continued: “With so much marine diversity yet to be described, parasitic species don’t always get the attention they deserve. But Sikkell and his team have taken an important step by helping to analyze the ecological effects of a parasite on Caribbean coral reef fish populations by describing this previously unknown species.”

According to the National Science Foundation, specimens of Gnathia marleyi will be housed indefinitely at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “We are currently discussing with AMNH the possibility of creating an exhibit featuring this species that could be viewed by the public,” said Sikkel.

Sikkel and his research team describe all of G. marleyi’s life stages in the June 6 issue of the journal Zootaxia.

Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981, at the age of 36, so we’ll never know how he feels to have a blood-sucking species named after him.

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