Monster Swell and Experimental Challenges

When the fieldwork of this project started in February 2018, we were able to rescue 100 staghorn coral fragments impacted by hurricanes Irma and Maria from 4 different reefs at the Island of Culebra, in Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately, less than a week later, the shores of the island were once again surprised by extreme weather in the form of a strong winter storm carrying 20 foot waves and 35 knot winds. After inspecting the shape of our experimental sites, it is safe to say that the consequences of this event were comparable to those of last year’s hurricanes. Indeed, more than 75% of the coral fragments recovered died during this event, and most survivors lost their identification tags, leaving them useless for our experiments.

Under such a gloomy scenario, we had no other choice but to raise to the challenge of building our experiment all over again. However, we could not afford to have all corals at the mercy of another potential storm over the next year. Thus, after a general team meeting, it was decided that two experimental sites at two different reefs with different orientations will be set this time. However, the logistic implications of this idea were enormous: instead of 100 fragments we will be looking at 200 fragments in total, plus setting transects and nails for a new location at 2 different depths, and all in just 2 days.

Fortunately, the outcome of this trip exceeded all expectations. We were able to recover our experimental plots at the original reef site and created new ones in another one, rescuing 200 fragments from four different reefs around Culebra. Overall, we out-planted a total of 400 corals fragments, at two different depths and in two different sites. The success of this mission was possible thanks to an intensive coordination, diving and tagging operation featuring a team of 10 people including scientists, students and volunteers from FIU, UPR and SAM. We will continue to monitor these corals monthly for a year, obtaining results that will help us understand how corals acclimatize to stress and providing keys for their conservation and management in the future.

In the present trip, we rescued approximately 100 staghorn coral fragments from three different reefs in the Island of Culebra, stabilizing them at two different depths. The hurricane impact was evident based on the high fragmentation observed in most of the recovered corals. We assessed coral morphometric parameters to start the demographic description of their recovery, and measured photosynthetic efficiency of coral fragments as an indicator of their physiological state. Samples were also collected to assess coral and symbiont genotypes, bacterial diversity and epigenomic modifications.

We are already planning the next expedition for the end of March 2018, assessing the status of the coral fragments collected previously, as well as increasing the number of recovered fragments up to 200 before starting monthly surveys.

The shores were once again surprised by extreme weather, a strong winter storm carrying 20 foot waves and 35 knot winds.

Bottom Time with Dr. Alex Mercado Molina

Alex is a postdoctoral researcher at FIU’s CREST-CAChE Center, currently based at Dr. Joel Trexler’s Lab in the Marine Sciences Program. As a co-investigator in the present project, Alex is in charge of fieldwork coordination and development as well as coral population and demographic analyses.

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

As an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant studying the population ecology of the tropical plant Plumaria alba. During this experience, I learned the vital role of scientific research in understanding the processes that shape natural populations and communities. I also realized that as an ecologist I would be able to contribute to our society by increasing our knowledge about the natural world that surrounds us. Having decided to pursue ecology, I later had the opportunity to participate in a workshop offered by The Ocean Conservancy and The Reef Environmental Education Foundation in La Parguera, Puerto Rico.  I received training on how to collect data to evaluate the conditions of benthic and reef fish populations. This marine experience exposed me to a whole new world and inspired a special interest in benthic organisms, such as corals, gorgonians, and sponges. Realizing that marine ecosystems are poorly understood compared to their terrestrial counterparts eventually converted me to the idea of becoming a marine ecologist.

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

My contribution in this study lies in using my knowledge in demographic and population modeling to improve our understanding of how biochemical, genetic, and physiological traits can be used to develop predictive models of organism response to environmental changes.

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

The next step is to translate the acquired knowledge into practical coral reef conservation and restoration strategies. It is also essential to continue testing new hypotheses to make our predictive models as accurate as possible.

How will this project impact your future scientific development?

The demographic performance of the individuals that make up any given population is influenced by their biochemical, genetic, and physiological properties. Therefore, to fully comprehend the mechanisms underlying the response of a population to environmental changes, it is essential to incorporate such parameters into demographic studies. This project will provide me with the opportunity to learn about coral physiology, epigenetic, microbiology, and genetics; such knowledge combined with my quantitative demographic skills will allow me to not only strengthen my capacity to develop interdisciplinary research studies directed at understanding the processes that drive changes in population size and structure over time and space but also to have a holistic approach to tackle environmental and conservation problems.

The next step is to translate the acquired knowledge into practical coral reef conservation and restoration strategies. It is also essential to continue testing new hypotheses to make our predictive models as accurate as possible.