Blacktip Island researchers say a hybrid damselfish/tardigrade will soon protect the Caribbean island’s coral reefs from scuba diver damage (photo courtesy of Warnken Schokraie)
Researchers at Tiperon University-Blacktip Wednesday announced a successful gene-splicing of a yellowtail damselfish with a Blacktip tardigrade, creating a new species they envision safeguarding Blacktip Island’s coral reefs.
“It was a longshot, but it actually worked,” TU-B marine sciences professor Goby Graysby said. “The new species has legs and a spikey mouth like a tardigrade, but also fins a tail and can dart about quite quickly. They’re about the size of your hand and attach themselves to coral. And the bright blue spots make them impossible to miss.
“They have damselfishes’ aggressive attitude, too, and are all but impossible to kill, like tardigrades,” Graysby said. “We’re calling them ‘damsel-grades.’ Like damselfishes, they nurture algae gardens and are extremely protective of them. Any diver getting too close to the coral will get one hell of a nip. We reckon it’ll do wonders for keeping divers off the reef.”
Research team members agreed.
“We envision them as reef defenders,” geneticist Lucille Ray said. “Divemasters and Marine Parks staff can only do so much. Divers wear too much weight and crash into coral all the time. But one bite from a damsel-grade’s oral stylets, divers’ll damn well learn to respect the reef.
“Damsel-grades also can’t overpopulate the reefs because they’re sterile—we create them that way in the lab,” Ray said. “We’re working with Marine Parks on where and how many are needed so we can set up a production schedule.”
Marine Parks spokesperson Val Schrader was cautiously optimistic.
“We’re waiting to see how they work, but conceptually it’s brilliant,” she said. “With so many divers with crap buoyancy, the reefs are just taking a beating. We’re all but powerless to stop it. But if these critters work out, the reef’ll be able to defend itself. Like fire coral, but more aggressive.
“Before, divers would laugh us off,” Schrader said. “Now, they’ll get bit anytime they even get close to coral. If this works out, we can get back to nabbing poachers and fixing mooring lines.”
Some on the island worried the experiment went too far.
“Creating a totally new species from two very different ones isn’t experimentation, it’s monstrous,” ethics watchdog Wade Soote said. “These scientists are playing God, with no way of knowing how these creatures will work out. It’s not natural and it’s not right.
“Also, anytime people introduce an exotic species into an environment, that environment invariably suffers,” Soote said. “Goby and them have no idea what the long-term effects of these creatures will be. They say damsel-grades can’t reproduce, but how can they be sure? And what happens when one savages an oblivious diver?”
Graysby said multiple precautions are in place.
“We know they can’t reproduce because we designed them that way,” he said. “We also made them so they emit a high-pitched whine before they attack. That and the coloring will give divers plenty of warning.
“There’s no down side, unless you dive like an idiot,” Graysby said. “And since damsel-grades only live a year, and have to be created individually, it provides a new industry on an island desperately in need of income.”