By Cindy Landrum
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98

Clemson researcher Antonio Baeza — with his marine biology students — has discovered a tiny parasite that has implications for a multibillion-dollar fishing industry and, in some ways, the future of our planet.

Antonio Baeza spotted something unusual. The marine biologist was looking at some female Caribbean spiny lobsters recently plucked from an offshore reef during a dive in the Florida Keys.

Ribbon-like worms — about the size of a dog’s hair — were among the egg masses tucked beneath the lobsters’ tails. Baeza, who was researching parenting behavior and reproductive performance of the lobsters, also noticed the broods that contained thousands of tiny, bright orange eggs had many dead lobster embryos and empty embryo sacks.

He and his student researchers tried to identify the worm based on published studies.

Surprisingly, despite more than 50 years of intensive scientific research on the Caribbean spiny lobster P. argus, they found no information on the parasite, which had a long body and pale coloring with slight tints of orange.

Baeza, an associate professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences, named the parasite Carcinonemertes conanobrieni after Conan O’Brien.

While the worm’s slim nature and coloring reminded Baeza of the late-night comedian, Baeza didn’t choose the moniker in hopes the celebrity connection would help make his discovery go viral. Instead, he wanted to pay homage to O’Brien’s status as a social commentator.

“Comedians comment on issues. They make it funny. But while they are presenting it in a funny way to people, they are also making them aware,” he explains. “To me, that has value. If I agree with that, I honor them.”

Antonio Baeza goes for a dive off the shore of Long Key alongside his Creative Inquiry students, Erin Griffin, Alyssa Baker and Natalie Stephens.

What’s In a Name?

Scientists who discover a new species can name it whatever they want if they follow some basic rules, such as making sure the combined genus and species name is unique — and not named after themselves. Historically, names were based on the species’ physical characteristics, where the researcher found it or after the discoverer’s scientific mentor.

But that is no longer the case.

“We also use it as an opportunity not to take ourselves so seriously,” Baeza explains.

While a noteworthy characteristic, place or scientist still inspires some names, other species’ names are inspired by the famous, often to create social media buzz for a species that otherwise wouldn’t receive much — or any — notice. Other names recognize social causes or honor people or cultures who may have been overlooked in the past. Musicians, comedians and writers are common namesakes.

Reggae pioneer Bob Marley is immortalized by a crustacean parasite. Thanks to their golden locks, Beyoncé shares a name with a horsefly with gold hairs on its abdomen. A wasp in the eastern Andes mountains of Ecuador is named after singer-songwriter Shakira because of the caterpillar’s motions in which the wasp lays its eggs when the larvae hatch. Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deacon, members of the rock group Queen, each has a damselfly named after them. Not to be outdone, a whole genus of orb-weaver spiders is named for Pink Floyd.

Fittingly, a shark is named after Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, the novel that was later made into the blockbuster film.

After comedian Stephen Colbert asked scientists to name something “cooler than a spider” after him, they obliged with the Neotropical diving beetle, Agaporomorphus colberti.

New species are also frequently named after politicians and activists.

The list of species named after former President Barack Obama is long — two species of spiders, a fluke, lichen, a beetle, two fish, a bee, a bird, an extinct lizard, an Ediacaran biota (a marine organism), a horsehair worm, a sea slug and an ant. No other U.S. president has more species named after him. Theodore Roosevelt comes in a distant second with seven.

Former President Donald Trump hasn’t been left out of the naming game, either, with a yellow-headed moth, a nearly blind, wormlike amphibian that burrows its head underground, and a venomous caterpillar sporting some version of his name in theirs.

President Joe Biden has a species named after him, too. Shortly after he was inaugurated, two paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History named an extinct vampyropod, an ancestor of the octopus, Syllipsimopodi bideni.

The Carcinonemertes conanobrieni isn’t the only species Baeza has named after a celebrity. He and his colleagues named a tiny shrimp they discovered in the Caribbean after the actor and former teenage heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Perhaps that’s fitting since that genus of shrimp is popularly called sexy shrimp because of the way it sways its abdomen back and forth while walking. The name wasn’t Baeza’s first choice, but he relented because of the actor’s work to bring attention and funding to ocean conservation.

“I hope those names age well,” Baeza says.

In the clear-blue waters of the Florida Keys, Antonio Baeza signals underwater while scuba diving for spiny lobster.

Red-Beanie-Wearing Explorer

Baeza credits his marine biology career, in part, to a celebrity: a French, red-beanie-wearing explorer with a blaze of white hair and eyes framed by glasses and bushy eyebrows.

To fill its programming lineup, a TV station in Baeza’s hometown of Santiago, Chile, aired years-old episodes of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The documentary-style series from the 1960s and ’70s chronicles Cousteau’s adventures aboard the retired Royal Navy minesweeper turned research vessel Calypso.

A young Baeza was mesmerized as he watched Cousteau unlock the mysteries of the ocean one hour at a time.

“Those old programs really captivated me. I still remember when I was a kid, and they showed Jacques Cousteau going into the Deep Blue Hole in Belize,” says Baeza.

“It just blew my mind — how he told the story, the exploration, the contact with nature, the diversity, everything. I was hooked.”

Watching Cousteau descend into waters where few had ventured before triggered something in Baeza, who had an innate hunger for learning.

“I had the ‘inquiry gene.’ I was always wanting to learn something new, to understand nature and society around me,” he explains. “Watching Jacques Cousteau, it clicked that maybe exploration and trying to better understand nature was something that I should try as a career. Although I’m not that old, I like to say that I’m from the Jacques Cousteau generation.”

When it came time for him to go to college, he applied for admission to the Universidad Catolica del Norte in three “ologies” — marine biology, anthropology and archeology. The school’s marine biology program in Coquimbo, a small port city in northern Chile and a hot spot of marine diversity, accepted him.

“I was thrilled,” Baeza says. “I still am.”

He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chile, then came to the U.S. in 2001 to work on his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University, with only $100 in his pocket and a big box of books he sent by regular mail. The box — half destroyed but with all the books still inside — finally arrived a few months later.

Earth’s Life-Support System

More than a half century has passed since the first episode of  The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau originally aired, but much remains to be discovered about what is, essentially, our planet’s  life-support system.

Occupying 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean drives our weather and climate. It has a critical role in the hydrological cycle — the process in which water in the sea, lakes and rivers evaporates, turns to water vapor in the atmosphere, condenses and falls back to Earth as rain or snow. Half of the oxygen produced on Earth comes from oceanic sources.

Beneath the ocean’s surface is home to hundreds of thousands of living species — 240,694 as of June 2022. There are potentially millions more, given that less than 20 percent of the ocean has been explored.

While the discovery of new species on land has slowed, more marine species have been discovered in the past decade than ever before. In 2021 alone, 2,176 marine species new to science made the list, including two identified by Baeza.

“The cataloging of species in the world is far from finished,” he says.

And why should we care about cataloging species, species that most people will never see?

“Widespread habitat destruction and deterioration coupled with global climate change are resulting in the unprecedented extinction of species at a local and global scale,” he says. “Having a more complete catalog of species will help us understand how evolution has proceeded. Why do we have more of one species in one evolutionary lineage than others? Why are some species present on some continents and not others? With that base, we can understand the connections.”

Grad student Alyssa Baker successfully captures a spiny lobster for analysis while snorkeling, carefully taking it back to the Keys Marine Laboratory, a full-service marine research and education field station serving students, faculty and researchers from state, national and international scientific communities. The lab is operated by the Florida Institute of Oceanography.

Vital Role

Take those Caribbean spiny lobsters, which get their name from the forward-pointing spines that cover their bodies.

They live in the Atlantic Ocean as far north as North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the lobsters found at roadside stands in New England or in restaurant fish tanks, spiny lobsters don’t have big front claws.

They play a vital role in the marine ecosystem and the economy of the Caribbean.

Spiny lobsters are prey for sharks, large fish (think grouper and snapper), turtles and octopuses. They are predators, too, and eat snails, crabs and clams.

“If lobsters are declining in abundance, the whole industry and coastal communities along the entire Caribbean basin are affected. They are really an important component to the community,” Baeza says, “and they sustain the most valuable fishery in that region, estimated to be worth $1 billion.”

Landings of the commercially lucrative species have decreased over the past decade. Scientists have several possible reasons — overfishing, declining water quality, global climate change and environmental degradation. Caribbean spiny lobsters live in coral reefs, and many coral reefs in the Florida Keys and Caribbean are dying at dramatic rates.

The tiny ribbon-like worm Baeza discovered also could contribute.

“A whole industry and coastal communities along the entire Caribbean basin rely on this species of spiny lobster,” says Baeza, who came to Clemson in 2013 after spending time conducting research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Preliminary research shows the worm, the first species of Carcinonemertes reported to infect the P. argus or any other lobster species in the Caribbean and the western Atlantic Ocean, negatively affects brooding females’ reproductive performance.

That could have a long-term effect on the fishery’s sustainability. It wouldn’t be the first time a nemertean worm adversely affected a fishery. Nemertea is a phylum of animals that are also known as ribbon worms. When a crab fishery in central California collapsed in the 1960s, scientists tied that to a different species of nemertean worm.

Baeza and his students are conducting research into the parasite’s behavior, including how it eats the eggs and mates. In addition, they are trying to ascertain how climate change and pollution effects could differ for the parasites and the host lobsters.

“The more we know, the more those managing the fishery can minimize the adverse effects,” Baeza says. “We’re trying to generate more information that will help maintain a healthy population of spiny lobsters.”

Left to right, grad students Natalie Stephens and Alyssa Baker, Associate Professor Antonio Baeza, and undergrad student Erin Griffin observe the behavior of a spiny lobster in the wet lab of the Keys Marine Laboratory.

Filling the Gap

The Florida Keys isn’t the only place worms belonging to the genus Carcinonemertes live. They inhabit the southwestern and northwestern Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the southwestern Indian Ocean, and the north and southwestern Pacific Ocean.

But before Baeza discovered a species off of the Chilean and Peruvian coast in 2021 that he subsequently named Carcinonemertes camanchaco, scientists had not identified any in the southeastern Pacific Ocean.

“There was a hole of knowledge in the southeast Pacific, so, working with colleagues in Chile, we went hunting for these types of species in that area, knowing the effect these parasites can have on species that are intensively used (fished) by humans,” Baeza says.

Baeza and his colleagues found the new worm in egg masses of two commercial crabs that inhabit the central-north Chilean coast, near Coquimbo, the place where Baeza was first trained as a marine biologist.

Carcinonemertes camanchaco has two ovaries on each side of the intestines and produces a simple, not ornamented, mucus sheath.

“The crab species, which are in the same family as Dungeness crabs, are already impacted by fishing. If we have an outbreak of this parasite, the fishery can collapse. It has happened in other fisheries,” Baeza says. “We are trying to understand the worm’s effect on the crab’s reproduction and gain the scientific knowledge necessary to manage the fishery toward the goal of sustainability.”

Baeza named the new parasitic worm after the Camanchaco, indigenous people who inhabited the Pacific coast from southern Peru to north-central Chile for thousands of years and relied on the area’s abundant marine life.

“A whole industry and coastal communities … rely on this species of the spiny lobster.”

New Shrimp

Last year, Baeza also identified a new shrimp species, the Lysmata malagasy, a tiny shrimp that could have significant implications for the ornamental aquarium industry and potentially become a new fishery in Madagascar and East Africa.

Scientists collected the specimen in 2010 from waters near Madagascar during a French National Museum of Natural History’s “Our Planet Revisited” expedition. They have kept it in alcohol ever since.

Lysmata malagasy is a species of peppermint shrimp, scavengers that are often added to saltwater aquariums to “clean” the tanks by consuming detritus, uneaten food and decomposing organic matter.

Peppermint shrimp live in the shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the east Atlantic Ocean and Florida’s coasts.

Peppermint shrimp are “a multimillion-dollar industry,” says Baeza. “If you go to a pet store, especially in Florida or on the East Coast, they sell them by the millions. They capture them by the millions and sell them by the millions. They’re cute shrimps. Besides providing this cleaning service, they are also beautiful.”

Baeza named the new species after “Malagasy,” the native inhabitants of Madagascar where the specimen was collected. “Malagasy” is the English version of the French word “Malgache,” the word used for both the people and their language.

He sees a chance for Madagascar to generate a new industry, especially if marine biologists can learn enough about the biology of the new species to cost-effectively produce them en masse in an aquaculture facility and export them to Europe.

Besides creating new industries, the ocean and invertebrates living there — sponges, corals, sea squirts and other marine organisms — may be the key to finding new medicines to treat cancer, chronic pain and infections and other human diseases. “There is so much more to discover,” Baeza says.