Field Work Expedition 04 - Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, June 2018

Another Side of Culebra

A single afternoon is enough to appreciate the vast beauty blessing the Island of Culebra.

However, after several months of work in the reef, it was only during this last expedition that the conditions were right to shoot some aerial footage of our fieldwork sites using drone technology courtesy of FIU’s CREST-CAChE. You can see some of the takes in the video below (recorded by Ph.D. student Javier Rodríguez-Casariego), revealing yet another angle of the island’s natural beauty. By analyzing these media files, we will be able to explore better and characterize the distribution of the different habitats surrounding our work sites, providing new and exciting clues into the biotic and abiotic drivers governing the recovery of Culebra after the impact of last year’s hurricanes.

During this trip we monitored demographic and population parameters as usual, including survival and growth of our coral outplants. We took samples for epigenetic and physiological analysis and measured photobiology parameters such as photosynthetic efficiency using PAM fluorometry.

The work went really smooth throughout the course of this expedition, with our learning curve increasing really fast thanks to all the mistakes we made in the past! We have come a long way since last November when we first started assessing these sites after hurricane Maria’s impact, and our previous errors have served as guidance to polish our trip arrangements, data collection, sample preparation, and analyses. During this trip we monitored demographic and population parameters as usual, including survival and growth of our coral outplants, we took samples for epigenetic and physiological analysis and measured photobiology parameters such as photosynthetic efficiency using PAM fluorometry. We found a slight increase in mortality at our Carlos Rosario sites and even more algal growth than in our last trip, suggesting a persistent impact of eutrophication.

This change in the reef is very interesting, and we will follow the nutrient and light dynamics of the sites to try to elucidate the source of this event. Outside the water, we were once again guests of the SAM house in Culebra. However, this time we took control of the food department by cooking all our meals, thus avoiding the feared “Pizza Paradox” (see last month’s entry).

Overall, the trip was very successful. We will come next month for the first trimestral monitoring which will require a complete sampling for microbiome, demography and epigenetic analyses.

Research Scientist at University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras

Bottom Time with Dr. Claudia Patricia Ruiz Díaz

Claudia is a postdoctoral research scientist in the Department of Biology at UPR. Her expertise on population ecology, demography and mathematical models (as well as her underwater diving skills) constitute a critical contribution to the progress of this project.

"Having the opportunity to continue my graduate studies in the Island of Puerto Rico, I became passionate about the marine life inhabiting coral reefs and became interested in developing mathematical tools to better understand how marine organisms respond to environment variables, especially in a time of climate change."

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

Mathematics is a powerful tool that can unite many areas of sciences. As a mathematician, it is my goal to use my skills to describe natural processes. In the past, I applied mathematics to solve problems in sports science (model of somatotype differences between athletes). Having the opportunity to continue my graduate studies in the Island of Puerto Rico, I became passionate about the marine life inhabiting coral reefs. In the same way, I discovered the beauty of marine life, I became interested in developing mathematical tools to understand better how marine organisms respond to environment variables, especially in a time of climate change. Therefore, I finished a doctorate in environmental sciences with a specialty in mathematical models of marine organisms. I really enjoyed being able to combine a system of applied mathematics (differential equations) with immunology, mycology, population ecology, cellular, and marine biology.

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

If we understand how environmental variables such as temperature, solar radiation, salinity, interact with the internal molecular and biochemical environment of the coral, we will be able to develop suitable strategies for conservation where better growth and survival could be expected. In this sense, this project is present a rare opportunity to combine molecular and demographic information to develop better conservation strategies.

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

I consider that the next step is to apply the results to improve coral farming strategies of the staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. In this way, we will be able to increase the survival and productivity of the coral at the moment of outplanting into the reefs, one of the major setbacks that coral outplanting presents.

How will this project impact your future scientific development?

Incorporating epigenetics information into the future mathematical models I want to develop will make them more realistic; thereby, my models will allow us to explain corals response to environmental changes better.