Wyngaard Uses Fulbright Scholarship to Broaden Copepod Research

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They live in all the world's oceans and in the majority of its freshwater habitats. And though they are so diminutive they can barely be seen by the naked eye, copepods' importance in the food chain is as gargantuan as their numbers.

So what are copepods?

Biology Professor Grace Wyngaard describes them as cycloptic microcrustaceans less than a millimeter in size, equipped with many pairs of appendages and antennae. They are extremely abundant and play an integral role in all marine ecosystems, providing a chief source of food for a variety of species.

"A lot of problems with these marine and freshwater organisms, they're global problems. These organisms don't respect any state or local boundaries. They're all over the world," said Wyngaard, who has been studying copepods for more than 25 years. Last summer, she spent three month's on a Fulbright-funded research trip to Brazil, where she studied the evolutionary traits of marine copepods.

Until the Brazil trip, most of Wyngaard's research involved freshwater copepods. "This was my first experience in working extensively in the marine environment," Wyngaard said. "In my first 25 or 30 years of working with freshwater copepods in lakes, almost all of them looked the same."

The copepods she studied in Brazil were not typical. Some had two or three eyes instead of one, some had square heads instead of round ones, some had appendages that looked like giant fans. 

Collecting water samples from her usual beach spot in Sao Paulo was "almost like going into a monster movie underneath the sea and seeing all these strange little creatures," she said.

Biologists may have witnessed an evolutionary phenomenon in copepods. In establishing a niche in the extremely diverse Brazilian ecosystem, some free-living copepods have become parasites that infest fish, sponges, crabs, coral and other marine life.

In adapting to this parasitic lifestyle, these copepods lose a variety of abilities and appendages, barely resembling their free-living forms. This in itself is not strange. What is strange is that some of these simplified parasitic copepods have apparently evolved back into their free-living forms, sometimes within a generation or two.

"That was pretty unusual," Wyngaard said. "A lot of people were skeptical of that, so I went down there to test some of those ideas."

When not collecting samples, Wyngaard worked with graduate and undergraduate students in labs at the University of Sao Paulo, teaching biology and studying physical and molecular adaptations in copepods.

"They have superb facilities" at the University of Sao Paulo, Wyngaard said, noting there are three DNA sequencing centers on the USP campus.

Wyngaard plans to return to Brazil this summer to finish analyzing the data collected during her Fulbright trip. Maybe then we will gain better insight into the drastic, high-speed evolutionary behavior of these vital marine organisms.

"I hope to continue working with [my team] until I retire," Wyngaard said. "When someone asked if I had problems with homesickness I was like, ‘No! I don't want to go back home!'"

Published: Friday, January 1, 2010

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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