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Taxonomy, the science of finding, describing and naming organisms, is vital to all biological research and to understanding and conserving biodiversity. The on-going effort to understand the ocean’s biological diversity is threatened by a shortage of taxonomic expertise. This so-called taxonomic impediment ultimately limits our ability to identify, survey, and conserve the world’s biodiversity.
The goal of our project is to integrate research with training to overcome the taxonomic impediment for 6 groups of tropical marine organisms: sponges, hydroids, sea anemones, tunicates, nemerteans, and algae. We are working together in Panama to enhance expertise and develop the next generation of taxonomists. Through a combination of original research, training workshops and development of online tools we hope to make the taxonomy and identification of these organisms more accessible to both expert and non-specialist workers in biodiversity and conservation.

Learn More About Our Study Organisms


Sponges are relatively simple animals, but they play an important role in marine ecosystems. Sponges pump water through their bodies and filter out tiny bacteria and other particles. This filtering contributes significantly to water clarity. By some estimates, a sponge the size of your fist could filter the volume of a swimming pool every 24 hours. Some sponges host symbiotic bacteria that can play an important role in the carbon and nitrogen cycles, fixing these elements from the environment and bringing them into the marine food web. Find out more…[pdf]

For systematic and taxonomic resources [link]


Seaweeds are important marine primary producers. This means that they photosynthesize and fix carbon in the way that land plants do. Large seaweeds contribute habitat structure to the ocean floor, providing not only food for herbivores but crevices and attachment sites for hundreds of other marine species. Seaweeds can be aggressive competitors for space, overgrowing corals when high nutrients support their growth. Most seaweeds are soft and slippery, but some seaweeds have calcified skeletons. These skeletons are important components of many sandy beaches. Find out more…[pdf]

For systematic and taxonomic resources [link]

Tunicates (Sea squirts)

Tunicates are the marine invertebrates most closely related to vertebrates, even though it is hard to tell that from looking at the adults. Adult tunicates can be either solitary or colonial. The body is a large sac covered in a thick coating called the tunic. There are two siphons, one for taking water in and the other for expelling the water after particles have been filtered out by the perforated pharynx. In the adult there is no head, and the heart can change the direction of its beat. The similarity with vertebrates can be seen in the tadpole larva, which has eye spots and other sense organs on the head, and a long muscular tail used for swimming. When the larva finds a good place to settle, it attaches to the substrate with its head, absorbs the tail and transforms into the adult body. Find out more…[pdf]

For systematics and taxonomic resources [link]

Ribbon worms (nemerteans)

Most ribbon worms are voracious predators, preying on many kinds of invertebrates on the reef and in soft sediments. They have radiated into a number of specialized life habits. Some miniature nemerteans specialize on living inside the egg masses brooded by crabs, and sucking the contents from the eggs. Other tiny nemerteans are part of the meiofauna living in the spaces between sand grains. Giant antarctic nemerteans can wait months for a good meal. These worms are famous for swallowing entire hotdogs provided to them by researchers. It has been said that the longest animal is a species of nemertean. They have been measured at 30 meters and are thought to grow to as much as 60 meters. Find out more…[link]

For systematic and taxonomic resources [link]

Sea Anemones

Sea anemones are related to corals, but they do not form a hard skeleton. Most anemones are carnivores, catching small animals with the sticky tentacles which are covered with stinging capsules called nematocysts. Sea anemones can live from high in the intertidal to some of the deepest parts of the ocean. At the moment only 9 species of sea anemones have been reported from Panama, but we expect to discover many more over the next 3 years. In tropical oceans sea anemones are often known for close associations with shrimp and fishes (think Nemo). Find out more…[link not yet active]

For systematic and taxonomic resources [link not yet active]


Most hydroids have complex life cycles where the animals alternate between two distinct forms. The medusa stage is a small or microscopic, transparent jellyfish. This is the sexual stage that produces eggs and sperm. The polyp stage is benthic and looks like very small anemones. The polyps can form complex branching colonies or occur as single individuals. The fuzz you see covering marine surfaces often includes hydroids among other things.

Find out more…[link not yet active]

For systematic and taxonomic resources [link not yet active]

​This project is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology through an award titled “Advancing Revisionary Taxonomy and Systematics: Integrative Research and Training in Tropical Taxonomy” (DEB-1456674). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.