RRFB Coral Memory, Can Corals Remember?

The EELab team recently returned to Bonaire to check on the corals that were reciprocally transplanted back in August.

After keeping a close eye on them for the first few weeks, this was an exciting monitoring timepoint to see if differences between native and transplanted corals persisted for multiple months. Differences between the performance (survival, growth, etc) and stress tolerance of these corals following the reciprocal transplant would be indicative of a lasting influence of their previous environmental experiences (i.e., environmental memory). Environmental memory, especially of different coral nursery site conditions, has the potential to help improve coral restoration success and prepare corals to better tolerate future stress exposures after outplanting. The team was excited to see that corals of the same genotype (i.e., genetic clones) that originated from different sites still looked visibly different on the coral nursery trees and during the thermal stress experiment. 

A highlight of this trip was an added collaboration with the Bonaire STINAPA Junior Rangers program. Ph.D. Candidate Serena Hackerott and post-doctoral researcher Dr. Juliet Wong gave a virtual presentation on threats to coral reef ecosystems and the application of environmental epigenetic research to marine conservation. While COVID restrictions unfortunately prevented an in-person activity with the Junior Rangers, the team was glad for the opportunity to share updates from this ongoing research project with local students. An in-person research experience for the Junior Rangers remains a goal for future project expeditions if conditions allow. 

Once back in the lab, Serena and her team of undergraduate research volunteers will continue to process the samples to have a better idea of the physiological differences between native and transplant corals that may account for differences in growth or stress tolerance. Given the promising results thus far, the team plans to return to Bonaire in the spring to continue monitoring the persistence of environmental memory over time.

This work has been made possible by support from Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire, FIU CREST-CAChE, The Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research, and the Iberostar Wave of Change Rebuilding Coral Reefs Scholarship. 

Bottom Time with Francesca Vidris

Frances Vidris is the Chief Operating Officer at Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire. Her passion for the underwater world sparked a constant interest which led her to become a dive professional and receive a MSc. in Marine and Environmental Science. Francesca’s love for the ocean and her dedication to reef restoration is a wonderful combination that leaves divers and volunteers happy to help, inspired to continue and excited to be part of the future of our reefs. 

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

Being raised in a family of divers and ocean lovers, I had the opportunity to get my scuba dive certification at an early age and travel to unusual destinations to explore the most spectacular and fascinating coral reefs. My passion for the underwater world and its protection sparked a constant interest, which led me to become a dive professional and receive a MSc in Marine and Environmental Science from the University of Bologna, in Italy in 2004. After a few years of working as an environmental consultant, I decided it was time for a lifestyle change to be more actively involved in the field and closely connected to the ocean, so I took a career risk and moved to Bonaire. Seeking new opportunities, in 2010, I was asked to get involved in the development of a coral restoration program in Bonaire. Regardless of the initial difficulties, in 2012 we obtained the permit to install the first coral nursery on the island and funded what is today the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire. From 2012 to today, this program has offered me an incredible variety of exciting opportunities and growing challenges, directly in the field and behind the scenes, which only fed and strengthened my passion for coral reefs conservation and restoration.

How will this project help support Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire’s mission and goals?

Living near a wonderful coral reef is a privilege, as we can enjoy its beauty every day, but it also instills in us a great responsibility as we witness its change in front of us. Proximity to human populations is related to decline, where development, pollution, and overfishing can impact coral reef habitats. Together with the island authorities we work to mitigate local stressors, maintain the current coral population, and increase coral diversity and abundance through active restoration. However, the environment is changing fast and strategies to increase coral stress tolerance and resilience have become a critical aspect of our coral restoration strategy. Thanks to this project, focused on exploring coral environmental memory and the role of epigenetic mechanisms in coral responses to environmental stress, we aim to better understand how we could increase coral tolerance, thus improving the chances of long-term success for our restoration work, in the face of climate change.

How was your involvement in this project different from your typical activities at RRFB?

Collaboration with Universities and being involved in innovative research projects always gives us an opportunity to increase our knowledge, to grow the program and to question our practices constructively. We had to combine our large-scale restoration practical methods with the need to create a controlled research experiment. Finding logistic solutions to keep our practices consistent, especially during a pandemic, and allowing for streamline data collection was the most exciting, sometimes challenging, part of the project.

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

One of the main goals of coral restoration is to establish self-sustaining, sexually reproducing coral populations that have sufficient genetic and phenotypic variation to adapt to changing environments. Therefore, it is important to keep investigating the physiological and genomic mechanisms that lead to different phenotypic responses in different environments and developing tools that would help us to identify the most resilient coral genotypes available, through for example monitoring phenotypic traits, or identifying biomarkers, etc. This valuable information could be applied to select parental colonies for larval propagation, or for nursery rearing, or to select outplantings based on site environmental conditions or their predicted changes. 

Thanks to this project, focused on exploring coral environmental memory and the role of epigenetic mechanisms in coral responses to environmental stress, we aim to better understand how we could increase coral tolerance, thus improving the chances of long-term success for our restoration work, in the face of climate change.