'Extreme' corals could hold key to species survival

February 8, 2016 by Marea Martlew
An example of the type of coral found in mangrove environments. Credit: Emma Camp

After months of planning there is one thing even the most prepared expedition leader can't control: the weather. For UTS marine biologist, Associate Professor David Suggett, the stakes are high. He and a team of his researchers have only one week to locate and sample as many coral species as they can from a New Caledonian reef ecosystem with very special conditions.

"The corals we are looking for thrive in relatively acidic and hot mangrove waters; visibility is not great so they often go unnoticed. But that's why we're going there, we want to examine these unique coral populations to understand how corals can adapt and thrive to extreme environments that potentially represent the future for many reefs worldwide," Associate Professor Suggett says.

"Whilst we will also be using our research to better understand how corals have evolved to very different conditions in New Caledonia compared to the neighbouring Great Barrier Reef, it will critically inform the sort of habitats in Australian waters that may similarly harbour coral populations already adapted to extremes."

The expedition, a first for UTS, is a joint initiative with researchers from the IRD (Institute of Research for Development), a French research organisation with a long history of biodiversity and natural resource research in the Pacific region.

Dr Riccardo Rodolfo-Metalpa, a New Caledonian based marine biologist and senior scientist with the IRD, says the collaboration is an opportunity to collect baseline data that will fill some very big knowledge gaps, contributing to major initiatives in common to both countries.

Emma Camp sampling for corals a in mangrove environment. Credit: Emma Camp

"We will examine sites where the are still untouched and not suffering from human-generated pollution," he says. "Despite the fact that among the 800 coral species described in the world, more than 401 were identified in New Caledonia by the IRD we are only starting to really uncover the diversity and abundance of corals here and, importantly, whether these corals are resilient to human stressors, including climate change."

Dr Emma Camp was awarded an Endeavour Research Fellowship to work with Associate Professor Suggett and his team in the Coral Ecophysiology Processes Team in the UTS Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster (C3).

Her previous research was the first to show compelling evidence that seagrass and mangrove habitats neighbouring coral reefs worldwide can harbour a relatively broad diversity of , despite their typically unfavourable environmental conditions for coral growth.

"Global research predicts a poor future for reefs. An important step in reef management is therefore identifying 'refuges' that will enable coral populations to thrive as most reef environments decline," she says.

"Samples collected on this expedition will help determine whether from mangrove waters are genetically identical as those from the neighbouring reef and therefore give new insight as to whether corals can keep pace with climate change. Alternatively, if these are genetically unique populations that have become effectively 'future proofed' they bring new value to local management and conservation strategies."

Associate Professor Suggett also emphasises that the project will have benefits beyond "the science of these fascinating systems" and says the collaboration with IRD as well as the level of local support has been phenomenal.

"Our work in the region is targeted to both the local government and local communities that depend on the reefs. Working with local organisations will enable us to directly pass on new knowledge of the reefs and how they function, and therefore build further capacity for our Pacific neighbours to manage for the impact of on their natural resources."

The team will be in New Caledonia until 15 February.

Explore further: A new future for corals

Related Stories

A new future for corals

April 28, 2015

Coral reefs, true reservoirs of biodiversity, are seriously threatened by human activities and climate change. Consequently, their extinction has often been heralded. Now, researchers are painting a less gloomy picture: the ...

Tough times for the tree of life on coral reefs

January 12, 2016

Marine scientists are calling for a re-think of how marine protected areas (MPAs) are planned and coordinated, following a global assessment of the conservation of tropical corals and fishes.

Study identifies most vulnerable tropical reef fish

February 5, 2016

Scientists have identified the key drivers of why some species are absent from reefs in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and which species are most vulnerable. Incorporating this knowledge in to conservation strategies will ...

Recommended for you

Study: Rotting trees caused mysterious holes in huge dunes

June 25, 2016

Mysterious holes that forced the closure of a massive dune at an Indiana national park after a 6-year-old boy fell into one and nearly died were caused by sand-covered trees that left cavities behind as they decayed over ...

Global coral bleaching event expected to last through 2016

June 21, 2016

After the most powerful El Nino on record heated the world's oceans to never-before-seen levels, huge swaths of once vibrant coral reefs that were teeming with life are now stark white ghost towns disintegrating into the ...

Scientists moot 'green fracking' technique

June 21, 2016

Adding CO2 instead of water to the cocktail used in fracking, could boost oil and gas extraction and help fight global warming at the same time, scientists said Tuesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.