Field Work Expedition 03 - Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, May 2018

First Month Sampling and The “Pizza Paradigm”

We took on our monthly travel to Culebra Island to continue with our monitoring and sampling of coral fragments after the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, here is what we found.

Differently from previous missions involving numerous people to help set the experiments, this time the team consisted of a streamlined group of 6 researchers able to perform all tasks associated with the current monthly sampling. Barely one month after the experiment set up in the reef, our main concern was the level of survival of the coral fragments, so we checked on every fragment individually and took graphic data for morphometric analyses.

We collected tissue samples for epigenetic and physiological analyses,

we evaluate photosynthetic efficiency using a Diving-PAM Fluorometer,

and installed additional light, salinity and temperature sensors.

While our arrival to Culebra was greeted by high seas and strong winds, work above and underwater was surprisingly smooth. Our experimental plots were intact and coral mortality was below 15%. This was a remarkable feature, as studies dealing with coral fragments derived from nurseries usually report up to 30% mortality during the first-month post-out planting. Most of the surviving fragments looked healthy and showed signs of growth and ramification, but there were signs of algae and cyanobacteria proliferation in our Carlos Rosario site (closer to the main Culebra Island). This could be related to the increase in terrestrial runoff caused by the recent rain, worsened by several fires that have been occurring in the island during the last months. Consequently, we collected algal samples to evaluate potential increases in nutrients linked to such phenomena.

Overall, this trip was successful in all aspects except for one thing, coined now as the “the pizza paradigm”. Every day, after working in the reef, another challenge starts in the form of finding affordable dinner in the island. The only place consistently open is a Pizza Restaurant, however, pizza is fun when that is a choice you make (not when it becomes an imposed dinner every night!). Next time we are making our own BBQ dinner.

We all are very excited about the progress of this project, and will continue to work hard to obtain results that improve our understanding of coral reefs responses to global change.

NSF REU Undergraduate Student

Bottom Time With Juan Sánchez

Juan is a NSF-REU Student at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras.

"I feel very lucky for the opportunity of working in this project because I am being exposed to cutting-edge science and new disciplines such as epigenetics. These approaches are critical for understanding and preserving one of the most important ecosystems of the world, the coral reefs."

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

It was the second year of my Bachelor’s degree and I had just gotten my open water SCUBA diving certification. I was very excited and looking for any excuse to go underwater, so I joined a student association called CESAM at the University of Puerto Rico, focused on marine environment conservation and restoration.  There, I met several scientists working on coral restoration projects, who needed volunteers to help with their coral nurseries. At first, I was excited just with going in the water. However, as time went by I started to develop a curiosity for the corals I was working with, so I started to integrate myself into the scientific rationale of that fieldwork.

What is the most important contribution of this project to the assessment and recovery of coral reefs?

I believe this project is very innovative and necessary because its results could potentially help maximize coral reef restoration. Coral reefs are in trouble and the more we know about them the better we can help them out. The study of coral epigenetics will certainly give way to new methods and techniques that will help the cause. Also, this kind of study could be extended to other organisms of the coral reef with endless possibilities.

Once this project is complete, what do you think would be the next step in coral research?

One interesting direction that these studies could take would be to study the epigenetics of the Symbiodinium that resides within the corals. I believe it could complement this research very well since they are the corals’ main source of nutrition.

How will this project impact your future scientific development?

I plan to absorb as much knowledge as I can form this project, not just about the epigenetics of corals but also about the scientific process involved in research. I have been involved in research work during most of my undergraduate studies, where I have been learning valuable things to be a well-prepared professional in the scientific research field.