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UT Professors, Student Document “Unprecedented,” “Paradigm-Shifting” Seahorse Research

Published: April 19, 2018
Jessica Elson ’20 said that learning about seahorses was a cool byproduct of her initial interest, which was animal behavior.
Jessica Elson ’20 said that learning about seahorses was a cool byproduct of her initial interest, which was animal behavior.
“What I find most intriguing is that yes, what I do looks great on a poster and science nerds are excited about it,” Elson said, “but it has real-world implications.”
“What I find most intriguing is that yes, what I do looks great on a poster and science nerds are excited about it,” Elson said, “but it has real-world implications.”
The team has submitted one paper that was published in November 2016 as the cover story in the Journal of Heredity, establishing the species they were finding in Sweetings Pond. They have just submitted a second paper documenting how dense the population is there, and they want to follow up with the nocturnal study later this year. Photo by Shane Gross
The team has submitted one paper that was published in November 2016 as the cover story in the Journal of Heredity, establishing the species they were finding in Sweetings Pond. They have just submitted a second paper documenting how dense the population is there, and they want to follow up with the nocturnal study later this year. Photo by Shane Gross
From left, Visiting Assistant Professor Emily Rose, Professor Heather Masonjones and Elson documented more than 700 seahorses on a research trip over spring break in the Bahamas.
From left, Visiting Assistant Professor Emily Rose, Professor Heather Masonjones and Elson documented more than 700 seahorses on a research trip over spring break in the Bahamas.
While spending spring break in the Bahamas might sound relaxing, the UT team spent at least eight hours in cold water, barely moving, while they counted the hundreds of seahorses in Sweetings Pond. Photo by Shane Gross
While spending spring break in the Bahamas might sound relaxing, the UT team spent at least eight hours in cold water, barely moving, while they counted the hundreds of seahorses in Sweetings Pond. Photo by Shane Gross
Biologists who study syngnathids (seahorses and pipefish), might come across less than 50 in the wild in the span of their careers. Photo by Shane Gross
Biologists who study syngnathids (seahorses and pipefish), might come across less than 50 in the wild in the span of their careers. Photo by Shane Gross
“From a career perspective, this was a discovery,” said Masonjones, who is now working with Bahamian authorities to designate the pond as a national park.
“From a career perspective, this was a discovery,” said Masonjones, who is now working with Bahamian authorities to designate the pond as a national park.

Most people come across seahorses in books or aquariums. Biologists who study syngnathids (seahorses and pipefish), might come across less than 50 in the wild in the span of their careers.

So when Professor Heather Masonjones, Visiting Assistant Professor Emily Rose '07 and sophomore Jessica Elson found more than 700 of them over spring break, it was nearly mind blowing.

“From a career perspective, this was a discovery,” said Masonjones, who is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s specialist group for seahorse and pipefish. She hosted the chair of the group last May to confirm her findings, and “within the first 15 minutes in the water she was like, ‘This is unprecedented. This doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.’”

The data was so extreme, Masonjones presented to and is now working with Bahamian authorities to designate the pond as a national park. She is conducting the primary science toward this end as well as spearheading the educational outreach to help move the conservation mission of this forward.

Masonjones learned about the pond from a friend who came across it and told her to get down to the Bahamas to check it out. That was in 2013.

“I was under water, and prior to this had only seen three seahorses in the Bahamas in hundreds of hours of work to that point, and I saw 16 in the first two hours of snorkeling. I wasn’t even diving.”

Soon after, a tourist’s post on TripAdvisor outing the pond as a great place to swim with these unique and unusual creatures started a time clock on the team’s research.

“The result was that all of a sudden we knew that we had to design a research project that was absolutely comprehensive just to get as much baseline data as possible, so that we could have scientific basis for good management decisions to be made,” said Masonjones. “We knew this was something that needed to be a park, but we needed to know the magnitude of how important it was before we could really push forward with that.”

She reached out to Rose, and involved students from UT and Bahamian institutions, to focus on the pond’s population biology, examining exactly what was in the pond.

“It really was so cool just lying on the bottom of this pond and knowing that nothing's going to bother you, and it's quiet,” described Rose. “You can hear seahorses snapping their mouths to eat; that's how quiet it is in the water. It's this eerie, strange, Seussical like location. It’s bizarre, and there's nobody around.”

Because it’s the Caribbean, Rose said they expected to find other fish and lobster maybe, but instead there were different habitats with odd looking fish.

“When you get in at one spot it might be covered in bright green fluffy algae and another spot might have really coarse yellow algae, and the fish look different too,” she said. “Then you’re looking around like what else is in here with us, there’s got to be something else in here. It’s eerie because you expect things to come from out of nowhere, but there was nothing there. Every time I get in the pond I think this is the weirdest place ever, and I get to just snorkel and lay here with seahorses. It’s so unheard of and so cool.”

The team had a good working idea that the pond was isolated from the outside ocean, which later genetic work and water flow models confirmed to be true.

“What's happening is this is actually a system in the process of speciating. This is a system where the seahorses and the animals in there are actually changing from the outside ocean,” Masonjones said. “More than just having a pond full of seahorses, which is unique, this is a Darwin’s finches story. This is an evolution story.”

The team of Masonjones, Rose and Elson returned during spring break, supported by a research grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry, to dive during the day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then again at night, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Masonjones had completed casual nighttime surveys, but nothing official. What they saw this March blew their fins off.

“This trip was just a major, paradigm-busting trip,” Masonjones said. “We had designed an experiment we thought would be possible based on looking at night, but not actually collecting any data at night. And the population size was 1,500 percent higher than worldwide seahorse densities during the night.”

Masonjones qualifies the last four years since discovering Sweetings Pond as remarkable, but the last couple weeks since spring break have been equally as thrilling as a professor, mentor and female scientist. Rose used to be an undergrad at UT, studying ecology under Masonjones. She went on to get her doctorate at Texas A&M University, which is where Masonjones reached out to her to collaborate on the Sweetings Pond project. Now a visiting assistant professor at UT, she and Masonjones are both mentoring Elson, Masonjones’ “academic grandkid.”

“I think the opportunity to go in the field and co-mentor an undergrad, from a previous mentor-mentee relationship, that was an amazing opportunity,” Masonjones said. “Then they go off and be completely independent and ask their own questions. That independence is an important part of the process in establishing who you are as a scholar on your own.”

The professors’ energy is infectious. While they have different ways of approaching research and different specialties, their excitement for the science compounds when they are in the same room, where they finish each other’s sentences and belly laugh at being gobsmacked by the sheer numbers of seahorses they’ve found in such a unique environmental system.

They came back from their first night dive at 3 a.m. this spring break realizing their original plans weren’t going to work and instead of heading to bed, redesigned the entire experiment while standing in the kitchen of the field station with their adrenaline fueling their pre-dawn brainstorm.

They’ve spent so many hours together — under the water and outside it — that it takes a special skill to keep up with the pace and scientific level of the conversation. This was just one criteria that made Elson’s addition to the team unique. The fact that she was a second-year student was another.

Elson’s very first semester at UT, she interviewed Rose for a Pathways to Honors (HON 101) assignment and walked away from the interview with data to start measuring seahorses.

“She had such really good questions about the project. She seemed really organized, which is really important, and the discussion about the project was so intense,” said Rose, seahorse earrings swinging as she spoke. “I knew quickly that she was asking about the analyses, which most of the students often ask about the seahorses. They get excited about that angle of it. She was kind of asking questions at the level of a senior student already during her freshman interview. I thought, let me show you how we do it.”

Rose assigned Elson, a member of the Honors Program, to a senior student in a cohort that was being trained in analyzing the seahorse data that was being collected (using photographs of seahorses to measure 600 of the 1,100 photos they had to analyze).

The next semester, Elson got permission to take a senior seminar course that was a comprehensive opportunity for students to get involved in scholarship, preparing them to be a part of SyngBIO 2017, an international seahorse and pipefish conference hosted at UT in May 2017.

The students delved into the research of the international scientists — the celebrities of seahorse research — who would be presenting and then participated in and helped facilitate the week-long conference. Elson had also started an extensive literature review of syngnathid material to get her prepped for designing her own experiments.

Elson, a marine science biology major who has two minors in environmental science and leadership studies, is absorbing multiple facets of the inquiry experience from watching how her professors are working in the field as scientists and professionals to discovering a place for herself in the mix.

Masonjones is focusing on population biology and looking at the feeding and mating ecology, Rose is trying to answer questions of evolution and genetics, and Elson, who has already taken a geographic information systems (GIS) course and is sophisticated from a mathematical perspective, saw a niche.

She noticed that the seahorses were spatially organized differently from daytime to night, Masonjones said. “She asked how we can we analyze that. You can just see her brain whizzing, and she’s creating a scientific place for herself in that process.”

Elson, of Gurnee, IL, came home from spring break and had a week to analyze the data, put together a poster, had it printed and then presented to the Board of Trustees as part of a campus-wide undergraduate research event.

“I’m super grateful because MJ and Rose treat me as a student, but they also treat me as a colleague in a sense,” said Elson. From advising on housing to opportunities to present at conferences to being moms away from home, Masonjones and Rose have imprinted on Elson. “Not only for me, but for every one of their students. They are incredible.”

A President’s Leadership Fellow, Elson is part of a handful of students helping start an inquiry and research based club on campus to make it easy for students and professors in all the colleges to connect, learn and collaborate, which she hopes to launch fall semester.

“It's really just been never-ending connections, never-ending opportunities with MJ and Rose, and so I've just been so grateful,” she said. “I always talk to freshmen about getting involved. I did an open house for the Honors Program, in PLF I mentor freshmen and I'm always just like, get out there no matter what you do, whether it’s English or business, just go ask. That’s how I started. I’ve had all these amazing opportunities, I know all these amazing people simply because I asked.”

The seahorses are a really cool byproduct of what Elson was initially interested in, which was animal behavior. She came to UT with a passion for dolphins, but now has a seahorse tattoo on her ankle, representing her undergraduate career and the ocean she adores.

“What I find most intriguing is that yes, what I do looks great on a poster and science nerds are excited about it,” Elson said, “but it has real-world implications.”

The team has submitted one paper that was published in November 2016 as the cover story in the Journal of Heredity, establishing the species they were finding in Sweetings Pond. They have just submitted a second paper documenting how dense the population is there, and they want to follow up with the nocturnal study later this year.


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