KU marine life expert works from dry land

When scientists around the world want advice on sea anemones, they consult an expert in land-locked Kansas.

A section of Kansas University professor Daphne Fautin’s office is dedicated to preserved specimens of the invertebrates sent by marine biologists wanting help identifying species.

“She’s the world authority on anemones,” said Fred Grassle of Rutgers University, who is leading the international Census of Marine Life. “She has very broad knowledge.”

Fautin has been studying the creatures since working on her doctorate in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the University of California-Berkeley. She’s personally identified 19 new species and has written 51 articles and co-written 56 more on anemones.

Anemones look like plants and usually attach to rocks or other surfaces. The approximately 1,100 species range in size from a few millimeters to more than 3 feet in diameter.

By themselves, the health of anemones might not seem important, Fautin said. But through her participation with the Census of Marine Life, Fautin is hoping information she has collected will lead to a better understanding of how global warming is affecting life in the ocean.

“The ocean is changing really fast,” she said. “It’s 90 percent of our biosphere and 70 percent of our surface. Most of our oxygen and food comes from it. It’s important to keep it healthy, and there are increasing signs it is not.”

The Census of Marine Life is an effort led by Ocean Biogeographic Information System, an international group looking to link data sets about the ocean through the Internet.

Fautin’s portion of the project involves hexacorals, the group that includes both anemones and corals. The site, www.kgs.ukans.edu/Hexacoral, includes citations of thousands of creatures found over more than 100 years that have been published in scientific journals. They can be mapped to determine habitat.

Daphne Fautin, a biology professor at Kansas University, is a leading expert on sea anenomes. She's working on a database of marine life.

Grassle, who is chairman of the census’ scientific steering committee, said Fautin’s data were especially important because some fish were only found near certain types of anemones. Those fish are important parts of some food chains.

“It helps us make predictions,” Grassle said. “We can take where they are found and the environment and make predictions for where else they could be found. Then, if we can predict climate change, we can understand what might happen to the anemones.”

Other scientists are working on databases for mollusks, cephalopods and fish as part of the effort.

Before coming to KU in 1989, Fautin spent 15 years at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Fautin, who makes frequent trips to reefs to gather data, said she didn’t find it strange that an expert on the ocean could be so far from a beach.

“People say that, but I didn’t walk down to the ocean in San Francisco every day, either,” she said. “You only need to be near an airport, not the ocean.”