Curator of Fishes/Research Zoologist, National Museum of Natural History
Growing up in coastal South Carolina, Carole Baldwin had an early love for the ocean. But it was a freshman professor at James Madison who awakened her interest in biology. Combined with her childhood background, “it was the proverbial light bulb going off.”
Dr. Baldwin studies fish diversity through integrative taxonomy, a combination of traditional morphological methods and more modern molecular methods. She specializes in the Western Atlantic Caribbean region.
She has discovered several dozen species of marine fishes that are new to science, with scores waiting to be described. Many of these fishes were collected during the Consortia-supported Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP), for which she is principal investigator. The project, based in Curaçao, uses a five-person submersible with hydraulic collecting arms to investigate reefs to a depth of 300 meters (about 1000 feet).
Exploring the deep reefs
“My most recent research is focused on the realm of the ocean called deep reefs,” says Baldwin. “With traditional scuba gear you can only access the top 120 feet of ocean, and if you’re paying top dollar for subs that go really deep, you’re not stopping at 300 or 600 feet. So there’s a very productive zone in the ocean that science has largely missed.” Baldwin has been able to get a group of people from multiple disciplines across the Smithsonian to jointly study these deep reefs and focus a dedicated effort on this ocean zone.
The DROP team includes around 40 Smithsonian scientists and staff from four departments within NMNH (Vertebrate Zoology, Invertebrate Zoology, Botany and the DNA lab); the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida; and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
DROP is attempting to answer multiple questions related to biodiversity, including:
- What is the diversity of life on deep reefs?
- How is diversity on deep reefs related to diversity on shallow coral reefs?
- How is that deep reef diversity distributed geographically?
When asked why it is important to understand these deep reefs, Baldwin laughs. “People are always asking, ‘What is the value to humankind for this?’ Or, ‘How can you make money off of what you’re doing?’ People generally understand the value of shallow coral reefs, both from a tourism standpoint and because they are home to an incredible diversity of ocean life. Deep reefs are not isolated from shallow reefs; they’re interconnected and deep reefs could play a role in the survival of shallow reefs.”
Another objective of DROP is long-term monitoring—to understand how physical and biological conditions change over time on a shallow-to-deep reef transect. In early 2014, the Prince Albert Foundation announced a three-year grant to help cover the costs of the DROP monitoring. “I am so grateful for this grant, as it was exactly what we needed to launch what will hopefully be many decades of monitoring. We were able to use our Level 1 and Level 2 project funding from the Consortia as a springboard for obtaining this external grant funding,” Baldwin says.
The lionfish invasion
Another recent, but unplanned, DROP research objective relates to studying the density, distribution, and diet of invasive lionfish that have been found as deep as 500 ft. on Curaçao deep reefs. “These are highly predatory, non-native fishes that eat up to 40 fish per hour, and when they are first introduced to a new area, they can reduce the local small fish population by 80 percent. My fear is that these lionfish, now appearing in such huge numbers in the Caribbean, are down on deep reefs gobbling up biodiversity before we even know it exists.”
Determining the geographic and depth distributions of native species and the non-native lionfish on deep reefs will be among the main upcoming objectives of DROP. At this time, DROP’s submersible is diving off the sub’s home port, the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, but Baldwin is searching for funding to move the sub and its research vessel to additional sites around the Caribbean.
Fish larvae: as different as caterpillars from butterflies
A lesser-known aspect of Baldwin’s research is her study of the larval stages of marine fishes, some of which are as different from adults as caterpillars are from butterflies. Being able to identify larval fishes is important in developing a complete picture of a species’ life history and distribution.
“Marine larvae disperse in the ocean’s surface currents as part of a community known as plankton, and presumably to aid in their survival during this period, they have evolved morphological features and color patterns different from those in adults. No one had studied larval color patterns before because plankton samples, when placed in a jar with preservative, lose their natural colors. Now that we have added molecular methods to our studies, we take a color photograph of each specimen prior to preservation. And it turns out, the color patterns of larval fishes are quite significant, evolutionarily speaking.” Her paper on the significance of color patterns in marine fish larvae was published the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. Another fascinating discovery that Baldwin and fellow Curator Dave Johnson made recently was genetically matching an unusual fish larva collected off Florida to a new species of sea bass collected at 600 ft. off Curaçao. This work was published in May 2014 in Plos One.
Communicating science to the public
In addition to scientific research, Baldwin has a strong interest in communicating science to the public. “I work at a research institution that also happens to be a museum, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a match made in heaven,” says Baldwin. She has helped educate the public through significant endeavors that have reached a lot of people: starring in Galápagos, a 3D film produced by NMNH and the IMAX Corporation; authoring One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish—The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook; and being a curator of the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. Most recently, Baldwin was a featured guest on Smithsonian Science How?, a live educational webcast.
Among her many professional affiliations and honors, Carole Baldwin is on the board of the National Aquarium and the editorial board of Zookeys, and has been inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. She studied at James Madison University, the College of Charleston, and the College of William and Mary. Dr. Baldwin has been at NMNH since 1992.