Get to Know Your Caribbean Marine Life
Story and Photos by Darelle Snyman
This month we continue our foray into the lives of the green macroalgae, those organisms that diligently labor away making food for themselves and other marine organisms. Their presence, combined with their vascular counterparts, the seagrasses, helps cement the reef framework by providing a habitat and refuge for a range of organisms, from invertebrates to fishes.
Within coral reef and seagrass bed systems there is always a competitive struggle for space and sunlight. Macroalgae are especially capable in this struggle, resulting in many becoming invasive. In their pursuit for their place in the sun macroalgae have developed many adaptations to give themselves a competitive edge. These traits are numerous and include: different growth forms, a fast growth rate, a high tolerance for a wide range of temperatures, and the production of toxic chemicals that make them unpalatable.
When it comes to growth form, species of the genus Caulerpa (Caulerpaceae family) can spread over a large area by growing on runners or stolons such as the delicately beautiful green feather alga (Caulerpa sertularioides). The name Caulerpa refers to the crawling nature of its plant body, or thallus, and means ¨stem that creeps.¨ This attractive alga can be recognized by its erect, feather-shaped fronds bearing fine, rounded branchlets. The feathery structure sometimes has a ¨waist¨ near the blunt tipped end. The thin, pale runners these feathery structures arise from is firmly anchored to the substrate by an extensive rhizoid system. Unlike many other macroalgae, these rhizoids are able to absorb nutrients from the sediments, giving Caulerpa a competitive edge over those that mainly absorb nutrients from the water column. This visually appealing species is found worldwide in tropical waters, flourishing in estuaries where it grows in sandy areas, seagrass beds, and on the prop roots of mangroves. The plants are eaten by green sea turtles and several species of sea slug. Green feather algae, like all Caulerpa species, have the capacity to reproduce asexually through rhizoid extension and fragmentation, which is one more way that the species can become invasive.
A family member that resembles green feather algae has attained worldwide attention. Caulerpa taxifolia is even called the ¨killer algae¨ because of the devastation it has caused in coastal Mediterranean waters. It was accidentally introduced into the Mediterranean Sea, where it flourished at the expense of other organisms, as it has no natural predators there to oppose it. This feather alga is not as delicate as green feather algae and its apex branches are more rounded.
Another less common species of feather alga is the flat green feather alga (Caulerpa mexicana). Its dark green leaves are flattened, as the common name indicates, and the densely packed branchlets are larger than those of the green feather alga. This more robust looking feather alga arises from thick, green runners.
Members of the genus Caulerpa are renowned for their numerous secondary metabolites, such as caulerpin, caulerpicin, and caulerpenyne — all compounds that are toxic to the Caulerpa species’ natural predators, but do not seem to affect humans. In fact, they impart a pleasing peppery taste. One edible Caulerpa species enjoyed by humans, and one of the most commonly eaten species, is the green grape alga (Caulerpa racemosa), a cosmopolitan species found worldwide in shallow tropical waters. Green grape algae also grow from runners, but instead of being feathery in nature they form dense clumps of small green balls resembling grapes growing on a vine, hence the common name. They are especially popular as a food item in Asian countries where they are mostly eaten raw in salads. The specimens I have encountered in the Caribbean do not look particularly palatable to me. They do, however, seem to be very nutritious: rich in fiber, proteins, minerals, folic acid, ascorbic acid as well as vitamin A, and vitamin B1. Caulerpa racemosa exhibit a number of different forms and varieties, mainly the result from the habitat they grow in. If you Google images of this species, you will find that the same species can look vastly different in different parts of the world. Green grape algae, like their other family members, reproduce by fragmentation, where pieces of the alga that break off give rise to a new individual. They do not, however, rely on asexual reproduction alone; they also reproduce sexually. In this process sea grapes exhibit holocarpy, meaning they uses all their cytoplasm to create the gametes that will give rise to the next generation. Only a husk remains of the parent individual after the release of the male and female gametes into the water column. There they unite to form spherical zygotes that remain motile for approximately an hour before settling on the substrate to develop into thallus form, a process that takes approximately 5 weeks.
The interesting fact about this seemingly mundane event is that it takes place as a mass spawning, normally just before dawn. Studies done in the Caribbean Sea recorded 39 such mass spawning events during a 125 day period. The green cloud produced during these events can reduce underwater visibility to less than 1m. Like many macroalgae, C. racemosa also exhibit anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant properties that show potential for future biomedical innovations.
Another group of green macroalgae that do not have to take a back seat to members of the genus Caulerpa when it comes to richness in chemical compounds with pharmaceutical potential is the genus Udotea. Members of this genus can be recognized by their mostly fan-shaped thalli, which has resulted in them having beautiful common names such as mermaid’s fan. One such beauty that I encountered on the sandy bottom in the clear Belizean waters is Udotea flabellum. Its fan-shaped thallus is often lobed, hence it also being called ruffled blade alga. The dark green fan is thick-walled with pale edges. It is known for its antimicrobial properties, which are the focus of cancer treatment studies. In one in vitro study, extracts were found to be most effective in increasing plasma coagulation time. Like other calcified macroalgae, it improves sediments upon its death by producing sand and organic compounds as it decomposes.
Another Udotea species you are likely to encounter in sandy areas and seagrass beds is the mermaid’s teacup (Udotea cyathiformis). Its thallus is in the form of a thin, often ragged-edged cup of light green, attached by a thin stalk.
It is clear that macroalgae can become a menace in a coral dominated environment when that delicate balance between coral and seaweed is disturbed, but it is also clear that these organisms, whether they interest you or not, are an important part of the reef landscape. Their value is not only limited to providing a variety of ecosystem services but they remain an untapped resource of bioactive compounds that could have unlimited applications.