HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Environmental Sciences


Oceanographic Center

First Advisor

James D. Thomas

Second Advisor

Charles G. Messing

Third Advisor

Kristin Hultgren


Synalpheus shrimp species of the gambarelloides group are the only marine organisms displaying the highest level of social functioning, eusociality. Their social hierarchies are equally complex compared to the reproductive abnormalities that have been recently discovered. For instance, snapping shrimp of the genus Synalpheus were thought to be gonochoric, i.e. developing as independent sexes, until scanning electron microscopy studies revealed intersexed gonopores in several species. This project analyzed both the species composition, and accompanying reproductive structures, of Synalpheus spp. (Caridea: Alpheidae) comprised of densely aggregating communal and pair-living colonies in the Florida Keys, Florida.

Colonies of pair-living and communal Synalpheus spp. were observed from hosts Spheciospongia vesparium and Spongia sp. from hard bottom assemblages of the Florida Reef Tract in order to assess differing population structures. Comparisons were made of the measures of overall and relative abundance, frequency by species and sex category, and variation in growth by species and sex category, for each individual colony. We then used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) images to determine the secondary sexual characteristics of three species (Synalpheus brooksi, S. herricki, and S. cf. herricki) which range in social behavior.

Species were widely consistent in both host choice and distribution, across all sampling areas. The abundance of communal species Synalpheus brooksi was much greater than expected at all sites, in comparison to previously published work. While Synalpheus longicarpus was reported at higher frequencies in prior studies, our results yielded a much lower frequency of this species, often found in pairs, rather than dense aggregations.

Average sizes of ovigerous and non-ovigerous individuals in dense colonies of Synalpheus brooksi and S. pectiniger did not differ significantly. However, total body length of individuals differed within species groups, specifically related to sex and presence of ova. Within colonies of S. brooksi, mid-development, or ‘transitional’ individuals, were discovered in nearly all populations. However, the reproductive and social function of these individuals displaying mixed sexual characteristics could not be determined from this study.

Individuals of S. brooksi displaying ‘transitional’ external morphology, i.e. masculine abdominal pleura paired with clutches of eggs, displayed higher incidences of intersex gonopores per colony than did conspecific non-ovigerous and ovigerous individuals. These results suggest that colonies of S. brooksi may be comprised of a subset of helpers, or individuals undergoing a transitional sexual development phase, similar to prior published findings of intersexed helpers among eusocial colonies (Toth and Bauer 2007). In comparison to S. brooksi colonies, nearly all colonies of S. herricki and S. cf. herricki were composed of intersex individuals. In conjunction with previous instances documented in eusocial Synalpheus paraneptunus groups, the data provide substantial evidence of intersexing at all levels of social organization in Synalpheus spp. (pair living, communal, and eusocial). These findings nonetheless provide a clearer picture of how social structure and life history influence adaptation of a particular reproductive strategy.

Quantifying features of Spheciospongia vesparium populations and comparing results to neighboring hosts, such as Spongia sp., provided evidence for potential influences of host choice, and variation in growth and reproductive capacity temporally and spatially. These observations of species’ growth patterns and abundances contribute greatly to our understanding of life history of Synalpheus spp., and, furthermore, adaptation of social organization.

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