The recent rise in ocean temperatures, accompanied by other environmental changes, has notably increased the occurrence and spread of diseases in Octocorallia, many species of which are integral to shallow tropical and subtropical coral reef ecosystems. This study focuses on the understanding of these diseases, which has been largely limited to symptomatic descriptions, with clear etiological factors identified in only a fraction of cases. A key example is the multifocal purple spots syndrome (MFPS) affecting the common Caribbean octocoral sea fan Gorgonia ventalina, linked to the gall-forming copepods of the genus Sphaerippe, a member of the widespread family, Lamippidae. The specialized nature of these copepods as endoparasites in octocorals suggests the potential for the discovery of similar diseases across this host spectrum. Our investigation employed four molecular markers to study disease hotspots in Saint Eustatius, Curaçao, northwest and southwest Cuba, and Bonaire. This led to the discovery of a group of copepod species in these varied Caribbean locations. Importantly, these species are morphologically indistinguishable through traditional methods, challenging established taxonomic approaches. The observed diversity of symbionts, despite the host species’ genetic uniformity, is likely due to variations in larval dispersal mechanisms. Our phylogenetic analyses confirmed that the Lamippidae copepods belong to the order, Poecilostomatoida (Copepoda), and revealed their sister group relationship with the Anchimolgidae, Rhynchomolgidae, and Xarifiidae clades, known for their symbiotic relationships with scleractinian corals. These results add to our understanding of the evolutionary and ecological interactions of copepods and their hosts, and the diseases that they cause, and are important data in a changing climate.

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Staff publications

Korzhavina, Oksana A., Nikitin, Mikhail A., Hoeksema, B., Armenteros, Maickel, Reimer, James D., & Ivanenko, Viatcheslav N. (2024). Tracing Geographic and Molecular Footprints of Copepod Crustaceans Causing Multifocal Purple Spots Syndrome in the Caribbean Sea Fan Gorgonia ventalina. Diversity, 16(5). doi:10.3390/d16050280