Student Research Highlight

PC: Sam Zabronsky

CIEE Fall Semester student Rachel Fuller talks about her research entitled: “Do Spirobranchus giganteus act as deterrents against predation on their scleractinian coral hosts?

What school do you come from? Major? Academic Year?

I’m a junior at Virginia Wesleyan University pursuing a biology major.

What question does your research address?

My research question addresses the potential of a mutualistic relationship between Christmas tree worms and their coral hosts.

Was it difficult to devise a research question?

Honestly yes. I loved so many creatures on the reef and really struggled to make a decision on which to pursue, and in what way.

Was it difficult to devise the methods for your research question?

Once I decided to look at predation on corals with and without Christmas tree worms, the ideas of the methods actually came easily with the help of my research advisors, Dr. Elmer and John DeBuysser.

A visual example of “pink-blobbing”
PC: Rachel Fuller

Describe a typical day of data collection for your research project?

In the water, data collection consisted of transects and following the direction of my dive buddy, Sam, as he pointed out which Orbicella spp. were within the 2 m belt. I would get to swoop in and strategically place a PVC measurement scale on the same plane of the corals and take a picture for later analysis. The lab is where the real fun happened, as I color-coded all of the 218 coral colonies photographed with pink meaning healthy coral, orange meaning predation, and yellow meaning Christmas tree worm. I referred to this process as “pink-blobbing” because the pictures looked like a form of abstract art in the end. Pink-blobbing was mind-numbing at times, but luckily my fellow students always knew how to motivate me to keep working. 

What major difficulties did you have to overcome to complete your project?

The biggest difficulty I had to overcome for my project was just the sheer amount of work that would pile up. After a day of data collection, I would have upwards of 60 photographs to color code in GIMP and then analyze in ImageJ. Never in my life have I been so strict on self-made timelines for my work because I knew that it would be a slippery slope if I began to fall behind.

What was the most fun part of your research project?

Data collection, hands down! I loved being able to apply myself as a research diver and use many of the skills that were taught to me throughout Advanced Scuba and Marine Ecology Field Research Methods.

Christmas tree worm on Orbicella annularis   PC: Rachel Fuller

Describe the general findings of your research project. 

I found that on average corals with Christmas tree worms have less predation than corals without Christmas tree worm, inferring that there is some sort of deterring effect the worms have against corallivores. This helps to further support the notion that the relationship is mutualism rather than commensalism between Christmas tree worm and coral host.

Has the process of conducting an independent research project made you a better scientist?

Conducting my own independent research has definitely made me not only a better scientist but also a better student, diver, writer, and leader. I would hope that anyone pursuing science gets the opportunity to conduct their own research!