DIAZ, M.C.; THACKER, R.W.*; COLLIN, R.; National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC; University of Alabama at Birmingham; Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama: Taxonomy and Ecology of Caribbean Sponges: Effective Training for New Investigators

In August 2005, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute sponsored a course on the taxonomy and ecology of Caribbean sponges, with a goal of training new investigators in sponge biology. Participants (3 lecturers and 13 students) represented 8 countries in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. Lecture material included discussions of the current taxonomy of marine sponges, an overview of the morphological characters that differentiate sponge families, recent developments of cytological characters, and applications of molecular systematics to questions in sponge taxonomy. Students learned to identify sponges using spicule preparations and histological sections in the laboratory, as well as external morphology in the field. Field surveys of mangrove and reef communities allowed students to gain further experience identifying unfamiliar species and using several survey techniques. Students observed 32 species in mangrove habitats and 57 species on shallow reefs. Laboratory exercises examined the role of microbial symbionts in sponge metabolism. Students demonstrated significant symbiont photosynthesis and nitrate accumulation in Chondrilla nucula and Xestospongia proxima, but found no evidence of these processes in Niphates erecta. Students presented the results of independent projects at the end of the course, including studies of taxonomy (sponge fauna under coral rubble, chimeric species, and sibling species) and ecology (anthropogenic disturbance affecting sponge communities, larval biology, sponge diseases, and photosymbionts).