Clarke Wins NSF Grant to Study Life on a Reef
Clarke’s study centers on blennies, inch-long denizens of holes bored into coral reefs by crabs, worms and other undersea excavators.
In the face of new reports on the decline of living coral reefs in the Caribbean, longtime Sarah Lawrence biology teacher Raymond Clarke has won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the habits of tiny reef-dwelling fish.
Clarke says Sarah Lawrence took the lead in applying for the grant, though the research will be conducted in tandem with two other institutions, the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and the Louisiana University Marine Consortium. It’s Sarah Lawrence’s third NSF grant in a year; last year faculty members Karen Rader and Drew Cressman each won NSF research grants.
Clarke’s study centers on blennies, inch-long denizens of holes bored into coral reefs by crabs, worms and other undersea excavators. The research will take place at a reef off the coast of Belize, as well as in a flow tank to be built in Louisiana, and will measure whether the force of ocean water moving over the reef determines the depth at which blennies live and when they go looking for food.
“It’s not clear what environmental characteristics fish are responding to when they choose habitat,” says Clarke.
Coral reefs are the ocean’s most diverse ecosystem, but about 95 percent of the Caribbean reefs where blennies live have been degraded or destroyed. “What this study might tell us,” Clarke says, “is that as the reef is reduced, less turbulence could completely change the mix of species there.” He adds, “As far as I know, no one has looked at it in this way before.”
Clarke, who arrived at Sarah Lawrence in 1972 and began scuba diving the same year, will spend part of the next three summers in Belize, as will at least one lucky SLC student. Other students will contribute to the study by observing videotapes of blennies from the flow tank or making the small floatable plastic objects that are the surprisingly low-tech backbone of oceanic turbulence studies.
Clarke has written about coral reef environments for several marine biology publications. This past June he co-authored a research report published in Copeia, the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. He and two colleagues are preparing another on factors, such as water turbulence and zooplankton escape tactics, that influence blennies’ search for food.