RSS Understanding Ascension: The road less traveled

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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Situated along the mid-Atlantic ridge, the Ascension Islands is a place oozing with mystic charm and celestial voodoo. This far flung outcrop of volcanic rock has captivated the hearts and minds of intrepid explorers alike, all with the intention of unraveling some of the Atlantic’s biggest secrets. Now Dr. Luiz Rocha and a team of scientific divers have seized a fleeting opportunity to study and understand the biology, evolution and history of the underwater inhabitants that call this rocky outcrop their home. 

Malachite green water seeping through obsidian colored rock make for an incredibly sensual treat for the eyes. Photo credit: Luiz Rocha.

The Ascension Islands sits picturesquely between the West African coast and Brazil, just north of the equator. Its geographical isolation is second to none in the region, with the closest island mass being situated about 750 miles southeast. That island is St. Helena, sister to Ascension. This isolation and detachment from the rest of the Atlantic islands presents us with one of the best cases of allopatric speciation in modern day reef fish.

The holy grail Centropyge resplendens in situ, 18m at Ascension Islands. Photo credit: Luiz Rocha.

Being so far flung, it comes as a surprise that more than a hundred species calls this rock their home. Of which, eleven are endemic and found nowhere else on earth. In examining the endemic fauna, parallels can be drawn in species that were once ancestral to the east and the west of this island. With infiltration into a region such as this, the inevitable genetic isolation and ecological specialisation kicks in, setting the stage for evolution and speciation.

An Ascension Island icon, Prognathodes dichrous is unmistakable as it cruises amongst ledges and cracks in the reef. Although found at 7-15m, this species was reported to be more abundant at 10m. Photo credit: Luiz Rocha.

But in the grand scheme of reef fish distribution and evolution, a few red flags are present that need addressing. How did they get here? How long have they been here? And more importantly, where did they come from and how are they interacting with this environment in unison?

These are some of the questions Dr. Luiz Rocha and his team set out to answer. In the last couple of days, social media has had the ironically cruel taste of a slow, strip tease featuring some of the endemic gems photographed in Ascension. For those dying to know more about this expedition and the miasmic haze of mystery that surrounds this island, fret not. Dr. Luiz Rocha will be speaking on this expedition in all its baroque detail at the upcoming MACNA 2015 in Washington D.C.

Another poster child for the Ascension and St. Helena island group. Chaetodon sanctaehelenae is the most abundant species of butterflyfish on the island. Found everywhere at 10m. Photo credit: Luiz Rocha.

Take this as an open invitation. The stage has been set, with stories awaiting to be told. All we ask from you is to enjoy, have some popcorn, and relish the recount at this year’s biggest conference to date. Until then, these photos below should serve as a light snack to bridge the wait. How many endemics can you identify and name?

[See image gallery at]

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