This Caribbean spiny lobster is infected with the lethal PaV1 virus. Lobsters with PaV1 stop molting (note the heavily fouled carapace) and become lethargic, as is evidenced by this one not trying to escape.

Marine Disease Research

Ecology, Epidemiology, and Fishery Effects of the PaV1 Virus

  • Searching for PaV1: Catching lobsters on a coral reef near Little Cayman island as part of a Caribbean-wide survey of PaV1 prevalence among adult lobsters.
  • Searching for PaV1: Sampling lobsters for PaV1 in the heat of the Dominican Republic in August, 2010.
  • PaV1 and the Florida trap fishery: During this project we investigated the interactions between fishery practices and PaV1 dynamics.
  • Diseased versus Healthy: While the lefthand lobster is healthy, the one on the right has late-stage PaV1. Its hemolymph (see syringes) has turned from clear to white.
The emergence and impact of diseases in marine populations is increasingly recognized as an issue of major concern for environmental health, fisheries, and aquaculture. My research uses a novel virus PaV1 (Panulirus argus Virus 1), discovered infecting the Caribbean spiny lobster (Shields and Behringer 2004), as a model system to understand how disease affects the ecology of marine organisms. PaV1 is the first naturally occurring viral pathogen described for any species of lobster and it has significant effects on lobster ecology. The spiny lobster supports the most economically important single fishery in Florida and the Caribbean with landings valued at 36 Million and 1 Billion USD, respectively. Thus, reductions in fishery landings have been a major concern.

Since its start, my research on PaV1 has been multidisciplinary in nature. Components of the work include the ecological effects of disease (Behringer et al. 2006, Behringer et al. 2008, Behringer and Butler 2010), geographic disease distribution and connectivity (Moss et al. Accepted), disease pathobiology (Shields and Behringer 2004), molecular characterization, and fishery implications (Behringer et al. 2012). This research has progressed from a basic understanding of PaV1 disease epidemiology, ecology, and pathobiology to a current NSF-funded project focusing on the spiny lobster-PaV1 virus association as a case study to better our understanding of the importance of dispersal by infectious agents on the spread and maintenance of disease in marine populations.

Early results showed that healthy lobsters detect and avoid infected lobsters – potentially reducing their risk of infection (Behringer et al. 2006). This is the first description of this type of behavior and it stands to alter our understanding of the role of pathogens in structuring social populations. More recent discoveries include evidence that long-distance pathogen dispersal in the sea via infected planktonic larvae is possible. PCR analysis of post-larval lobsters arriving in the Florida Keys showed that in some months > 30% of post-larvae arriving from offshore tested positive for PaV1 (Moss et al. 2012) and evidence from the lobster fishery has revealed > 10% infection among reproductive adults - with no overt signs of infection (Behringer et al. 2012). This fishery research has also shed light on the interaction between fishery practices and disease dynamics and we have suggested changes to fishery practices to alleviate this situation (Behringer et al. 2012).