Photos and text by MEREDITH FORREST KULWICKI
Published October 10, 2023
Halocaridina rubra, or tiny red shrimp, are about the size of your pinky fingernail and are endemic to Hawaii.
Maui native and UB researcher Scott Santos has been studying these tiny animals for nearly two decades and believes they provide a window into how ocean life is changing due to climate change.
“One of the things that we have gotten funding to do is to look at how the animals adapt to new habitats,” says Santos, Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences. “Hawaii is a very dynamic system. You get environments or areas that are created, and you can also get them destroyed.”
Santos notes that when the Kilauea Volcano erupted in 2018, new lava covered long stretches of the shoreline on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“While that destroyed some of the original habitats, it created new ones,” he explains. “The newly created habitats were literally sterile. Now the animals, the bacteria and everything are coming in and we are looking at what’s exactly happening as this process goes on, from days to months to years to decades.”
Santos says that if he had to pinpoint what inspired him to be a scientist, “it was back when I was a kid, just exploring the ocean with my family.”
He says his family used to hunt and fish, which exposed him from a young age to the wide variety of organisms — both native and introduced — that are found on the islands.
His family has been in Hawaii for three generations — his great-great grandparents came from Puerto Rico and Portugal to work in agriculture on the islands. As a child, he often explored the landscape and says finding shrimp was never a challenge.
On a trip home in June 1999 while he was a graduate student at UB, Santos collected about half a dozen ʻōpaeʻula — the Hawaiian name for the shrimp — in a sealed bottle. As his academic work continued, he found himself increasingly interested in them: how they lived, how they behaved, their genetics and their physiology.
Reflecting on the times he spent on the Hawaiian shores as a child, Santos decided to focus more of his research on these relatively unknown creatures.
“As a researcher, I felt the ʻōpaeʻula presented an interesting system,” Santos recalls. “It was as simple as, ‘Let’s collect some samples and see what happens.’ And then that just building into now and I’ve got this really novel and interesting data.”
His lab now houses nearly a dozen tanks of shrimp collected from approximately 40 sites around the Hawaiian Islands. Through his work over the past two decades, Santos has become a recognized leader in this field of research. He has been featured in Science Nation, received funding from the National Science Foundation, published more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and had his work featured in multiple scientific journals.
Santos rejoined the UB community — he earned his PhD from the university in 2002 — about two years ago after spending 17 years on the faculty at Auburn University. He has built his lab to integrate a variety of research interests.
Work in The Santos Lab utilizes a variety of molecular tools, computational approaches and field- and laboratory-based studies to examine the ecology, evolution, genetics, physiology and symbiosis biology of a range of terrestrial and aquatic — both freshwater and marine — organisms, including host- and environmentally associated microbiomes. Currently his students are researching clams — yes, clams — in Western New York forests; shrimp living in the Caribbean in similar habitats to those from Santos’ research; and the microbial populations in the Hawaiian shrimps’ habitats.
“Working in the Santos Lab is like being part of a close-knit family,” says master’s student Nick James. “It’s a collaborative environment where we tackle intriguing research questions together, which has been invaluable for my learning journey.”
“The important part is that people have similar large-scale interests,” Santos adds. “Having a team with such diverse research projects has been fun because they all think similarly but are not overlapping in their specific work. It makes for a very dynamic environment.”