Florida Museum of Natural History student François Michonneau recently received a $15,000 National Science Foundation grant to research sea cucumbers in Japan.

The NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant program provides partial support for projects to improve the quality of research in the biological sciences. Michonneau said his research will lead to a better understanding of the history of species diversification in the sea.

“Studying sea cucumbers is a good starting point because they provide lots of evidence about evolution,” Michonneau said.

Francois Michonneau
Doctoral student Francois Michonneau recently received a $15,000 Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation to study sea cucumber speciation. The grant will take him to Okinawa, Japan for several weeks this summer to study in the field.

Photo by Jeff Gage

The two-year project will also help document marine invertebrates in Japan to help scientists evaluate future marine health, as well as contribute to an inventory of the marine invertebrate fauna of Okinawa in general, particularly sea cucumbers.

“Francois is an exceptional student and analytical biologist,” said Florida Museum malacology curator Gustav Paulay, who is supervising Michonneau’s research. “His mathematical and biological skills complement his amazing understanding of species and animals.”

Michonneau will focus on three different groups of sea cucumbers that live in a variety of environments and water depths, and said that Okinawa is one of the best locations to collect all three.

He plans to examine the relationships between these sea cucumbers by combining physical evidence from the specimens he collects, with a complete DNA sequencing to determine if they are different species, subspecies or hybrid species.

Michonneau will work with Tohru Naruse, University of the Ryukyus assistant professor for the Transdisciplinary Research Organization for Subtropical and Island Studies. Naruse runs a laboratory conducting biodiversity research projects in the islands and will lend his assistance and local expertise to Michonneau.

“If these three sea cucumbers turn out to be completely different species, rather than subspecies, it would mean there has been really rapid creation of new species,” Michonneau said. “This diversification would be happening maybe 10 times faster than other oceanic creatures.”

Sea cucumbers, found worldwide, are some of the most abundant creatures in the sea and often make up a large portion of the animal population in deep waters. Michonneau said sea cucumber species diversity is underestimated and more research is necessary to better understand the biodiversity of reef ecosystems.

Learn more about Invertebrate Zoology at the Florida Museum.

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