Spatial Variation in Oyster Macroparasites Across the Georgia Coast

Sofia Markiewicz, a student at Scripps College, worked in the lab of Dr. Jeb Byers

Abstract Oysters are a key coastal foundation species that have declined drastically across the US coasts due to the combined effects of overharvesting, pollution, and disease. With climate change, there The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is a keystone species and ecosystem engineer that stabilizes sediments, cycles nutrients, improves water quality, and provides habitat for fish and crustaceans. Oysters are prone to several macroparasites, including pea crabs (Zaops ostreum), mud blister worms (Polydora websteri), and boring sponge (Cliona spp.), all of which can damage their gill tissue and shells. Although oyster populations have been widely studied in other areas of the eastern United States, the geographic and environmental factors that influence macroparasite infection in Georgia’s oyster population are still largely unknown. In this study, we sampled oysters from 24 reefs across eight distinct sites along the Georgia coastline and examined them for macroparasite infection. The relationships between macroparasite prevalence and geographic location and environmental conditions (specifically reef complexity, reef shell density, dissolved oxygen, water temperature, and salinity) were examined. We found no correlation between location and macroparasite prevalence for any of the macroparasites examined. However, increased prevalence of blister worms was correlated with low salinity and low reef complexity. Prior research has also shown that shellfish infected with blister worms exhibit decreased shell strength, and are therefore more vulnerable to damage and predation. Understanding what conditions affect blister worm prevalence and how they may be altered by by climate change (e.g. changing salinity) is important for evaluating locations where oyster reefs are likely to have low macroparasite infection and be less prone to damage, in order to better maintain high-quality reef habitat. This is especially crucial in a relatively understudied environment such as Georgia, where the effects of these conditions are less well known.