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Red-Med Marine Bioinvasion

Final Report Summary - REDMEDINV (Red-Med Marine Bioinvasion)

Biological invasions constitute a major global threat to indigenous communities. Marine ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to biological invasions as organisms can spread rapidly and are harder to detect in comparison than on land. The invasion of Red Sea species into the Mediterranean Sea is among the most extensively documented marine bioinvasion phenomena. Following the intensive development of the Suez Canal, the introduction of alien species into the Mediterranean is anticipated to rapidly increase presenting severe threats to marine biodiversity of the region. The Red-Med Marine Bioinvasion project is aimed at I) developing an early-detection monitoring system for sessile introduced species in the Mediterranean and Red Sea; II) developing models of the dispersal patterns of non-indigenous species based on field and experimental data, investigating the salinity and temperature thresholds of introduced species; and III) enhancing regional sharing of information by establishing a database of marine- introduced species, and by contributing scientific data to open-access databases such as The World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), and the European Alien Information Network (EASIN). In addition, voucher specimens for future molecular and morphological work have been made available to the public.
Ascidians (Phylum: Chordata) form the focus of the project due to their increasing role in altering biodiversity in fouling communities around the world, and the rapid global spread of non-indigenous ascidians. The current project has significantly enhanced my re-integration as a senior lecturer at the Zoology Department, Faculty of Life Sciences, Tel-Aviv University, and increased my global recognition as an expert in ascidian ecology and biology. The support of the CIG has enabled me to start conducting independent research early on, in my own field of expertise, greatly assisted by additional research grants and prizes, while also involved as co-editor in several international initiatives. For example, my research received funding from two prestigious agencies: The Israel Science Foundation (1 million NIS for 4 years, 2015-2018), on the use of invasive ascidians as bio-indicators of marine environments; and the United States Israel Bi-National Scientific Foundation ($150,000 2016-2017), on the contribution of microbial fauna to the successful establishment of introduced species (co-PI Dr. Susanna López-Legentil, UNCW). This additional recognition facilitate my chances of obtaining soon tenure.
The grant greatly contributed to the establishment of the Shenkar laboratory as a broad research team involving graduate students, under-graduate students, post docs, and technicians all dedicated to marine bioinvasion and ascidian research.
During the past four years the Shenkar team invested much effort in monitoring the distribution of non-indigenous ascidians along the Mediterranean coast of Israel, collecting environmental data, identifying factors that may contribute to the successful establishment of invasive species along the coast, and developing strategies for the early detection of newly introduced species. Monitoring vessels has revealed the significant role they play in ascidian dispersal and spread across the Mediterranean, including the discovery of newly introduced species prior to their establishment along the coast. Graduate students in the Shenkar laboratory have studied the reproductive traits and distribution patterns of two of the most abundant invasive species- Herdmania momus and Microcosmus exasperatus, and conducted laboratory experiments investigating the survivorship and physiological response of adults and early life stages to differential salinity and temperature. All of the above data has contributed to our ability to advice and provide useful tools for management and policy makers in Israel and abroad.
Finally, the Shenkar laboratory has been engaged in the majority of outreach activities proposed, such as involving citizen's science by incorporating recreational diver reports in the early-detection campaign, collaboration with both commercial and military agencies, and establishment of a new undergraduate course "Discovering the Sea", in which high-school students from a low socio-economic background attend Tel Aviv University for a full semester to study marine biology and ecology. This course was the first of its kind at the Faculty of Life Sciences, and following its great impact on the students and high-schools, the board of governs of Tel Aviv University supported the initiation of a large scale outreach program, with "Discovering the Sea" as its model course.
The current project's unique results in the field of ascidian bioinvasion in the Mediterranean and Red Sea provide essential information for the development of strategies by which to manage biological invasions in coastal marine environments, and have produced a solid essential base line from which to embark on future studies on marine bioinvasion in the region, and on ascidian ecology and biology in particular.