ECU Graduate Student Awarded Fellowship for Work With Marine Parasites

East Carolina graduate student Christopher Moore was selected as a 2018 North Carolina Sea Grant and N.C. Coastal Reserve Coastal Research Fellow, allowing the Winston-Salem native to fund his marine-life research.

The fellowship is designed to advance research that addresses coastal management issues at one of North Carolina’s 10 coastal and national estuarine research reserve sites. Moore’s research will be focused at the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort.

The project, titled “Parasites as Novel Indicators of Biodiversity in Restored Coastal Habitats,” will focus on the positive information parasites can relay to scientists in a coastal ecosystem.

ECU graduate student Christopher Moore prepares a crab condo as Goose Creek State Park as part of his work with the Blakeslee Lab. Moore was named a 2018 North Carolina Sea Grant and N.C. Coastal Reserve Coastal Research Fellow, which will fund his research at the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort.

“We don’t really think of parasites as beneficial, but actually they can be strong indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem health,” Moore said.

The interdisciplinary doctoral student’s research will track the life cycle of certain parasites at the Rachel Carson Reserve and record the host animals that carry them.

“The way we think it works is that certain types of parasites require multiple hosts to complete their lifecycle,” Moore said. “For example, the Trematoda’s (a type of parasitic flatworm) larval form begins in a mussel or snail. Then, its next lifecycle stage takes place in a small fish or crustacean, like a mud crab or a blue crab. Sometimes the life cycle ends there and other times a late-stage is required, like a larger fish or a bird.

“What I’ve found in my work is that in degraded landscapes, or areas with a lot of development, those late-stage hosts will not be there, so those parasites will not be there,” he said. “As biologists, we can spend a lot of time looking for these late-stage hosts that can be elusive, but if you can find the parasites instead, which are a lot easier to collect and are often very host specific, then that can potentially be an easier way to learn more about an ecosystem and the diversity of organisms it contains.”

Moore said his project will involve capturing early-stage hosts to measure the success of different restoration techniques used by the Rachel Carson Reserve.

“I’m attempting to use parasites … to measure the success of different restoration techniques and how they restore biodiversity,” Moore said. “We won’t be setting up big trap nets to pick up all the fish that are moving through an area. Instead, we hope to sample the easily collectable organisms that serve as early-stage hosts of parasites – so the snails or small goby fish. Those are much easier to capture and collect.

“By looking at the parasites early-stage hosts contain, we can draw some conclusions about not only the health of the landscape, but potentially which restoration projects are working more efficiently.”

Moore believes his project could eventually save coastal researchers time and labor.

“I come from an environmental monitoring background,” Moore said. “It’s very time and labor intensive, as well as a stress financially, to collect this data. I’m hoping we can create a new method of scoring environmental health. In our field, we score environments using the Index of Biological Integrity (IBI). The idea of this scale is that certain organisms are weighted to different degrees in an ecosystem based on how they react to pollution. That tells us how healthy a body of water is.

“It would be interesting to develop a parasite-specific IBI from this research,” he said. “Some parasites are not host specific and can live anywhere – they would be rated relatively low on the scale. But some parasites are very host specific and require more sensitive late-stage hosts. They would receive a higher score. Potentially this work could go into developing that scale and offering an index that saves labor and financial costs in larger bodies of water.”

Moore said the fellowship will help fund his project by allowing him to construct “crab condos” which are used to catch first-host organisms. Additionally, he plans on hiring an undergraduate assistant to help process the project’s data.

Moore is a member of the Blakeslee Lab, led by Dr. April M.H. Blakeslee, ECU assistant professor of biology.

The Sea Grant and the Coastal Reserve anticipates awarding $10,000 to fund Moore’s work.