Monthly Archives: January 2013

Starting off 2013 With The Smell of Algae

Undergrads helping with the algae samping

Undergrads processing algae samples

It’s great to be back in the lab! Starting 2013 off right with the smell of drying algae in the air.

If you’re not familiar with the scent, a few of us in the lab tried to describe it using: salty, spicy, stinky shoe, earthy, brined turkey water,  and wet dog.  We’ve been compiling this list of adjectives while processing a large volume of turf algae (short filamentous algae that carpets parts of the reef in a brown fuzz) removed from a two-year experiment on Maui examining the roles of fish and urchins in coral reef herbivory.

Undergrads Jennie Dinh and Lauren Kitayama have been helping with this sample processing which involves very small pieces of algae.  Despite their size, the data these tiny algae hold will help us better understand how fish and urchins graze on turf algae. This turf algae is an important component of coral reefs because it covers 30-80% of the bottom of the reefs around Maui.

Algae Sampling

A few of our algae samples

This particular experiment occurred on West Maui at the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area, in which herbivorous fish and urchins are protected in hopes of improving reef health through herbivores consuming more algae on the reef.  As a result, this reef is also heavily studied by state managers and researchers in Hawaii and mainland US, including several of us in the Smith Lab.

Scripps Researchers Explore Wonders of Coral

scientists conduct research in kingmanOff remote Pacific atolls, San Diego researchers studying coral ecosystems found an underwater wonderland more vibrant than anything they’d ever seen. Vast coral cities of towers and caverns were teeming with sharks and other sea life.

“They can create a labyrinth, a maze or a church,” said Jennifer Smith, a professor at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and a lead researcher on the studies. “It can be really spectacular.”

Coral reefs are made up of the skeletons of coral polyps, which accumulate over millennia to form branching structures that host fish, mollusks and other marine life.

There in the Line Islands, a far-flung archipelago 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, coral grew “in big mounds the size of Volkswagen buses,” said Scripps researcher Nicole Price. “Then there’s fish swimming in and around like a big jungle gym: turtles, manta rays, sharks and dolphins following your boat. It truly is kind of idyllic.”

The research aimed to measure the differences between reefs on inhabited versus uninhabited islands. Around the world, reefs have declined because of overfishing, pollution and coral bleaching, through which warming waters prompt corals to expel microorganisms that help them survive.

Amid that gloomy news, the Scripps findings set a new benchmark for what a healthy reef should look like, and offer hope for restoration of degraded reefs.

green sea turtle“We view it as an opportunity to go back in time,” Smith said. “These uninhabited islands represent a window into the past, to see what coral reefs looked like hundreds of years ago. There’s no fishing, there’s no development, there’s no runoff.”

It also represents good news to people who rely on reefs for food, income and breakwaters, demonstrating that robust reefs are more productive.

“A healthier reef, where you want to dive, is also the one that gives the villagers more food, and protects their coastline,” said Stuart Sandin, a professor of marine ecology at Scripps.

The Scripps team began looking at the Line Islands in 2005, after charting out areas isolated from human impact, and outside normal trade and fishing routes.

Some host just a few thousand people; others have no permanent residents. So scientists could study the variation between the inhabited and uninhabited islands, and examine how a relatively pristine reef functions.

“To date, most of our research has looked at degraded reefs,” Sandin said. “What do sick reefs look like and what is the degree of their illness? But we never had a healthy reef to study.”

In other reefs around the world, coral formations typically cover about 20 percent of ocean bottom, Smith said. By contrast, the pristine reefs they studied covered 70 to 90 percent of the sea floor, “which is just unheard of anywhere else on the planet,” she said.

Massive round-topped corals called porites grew many meters across and just as tall, stretching across the ocean like a forest of giant mushrooms. Giant clams wedged between coral fronds, while striped surgeonfish swam in impenetrable schools.

Off remote Pacific atolls, San Diego researchers studying coral ecosystems found an underwater wonderland more vibrant than anything they’d ever seen. Vast coral cities of towers and caverns were teeming with sharks and other sea life.

kingman backreefcommunity“They can create a labyrinth, a maze or a church,” said Jennifer Smith, a professor at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and a lead researcher on the studies. “It can be really spectacular.”

Coral reefs are made up of the skeletons of coral polyps, which accumulate over millennia to form branching structures that host fish, mollusks and other marine life.

There in the Line Islands, a far-flung archipelago 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, coral grew “in big mounds the size of Volkswagen buses,” said Scripps researcher Nicole Price. “Then there’s fish swimming in and around like a big jungle gym: turtles, manta rays, sharks and dolphins following your boat. It truly is kind of idyllic.”

The research aimed to measure the differences between reefs on inhabited versus uninhabited islands. Around the world, reefs have declined because of overfishing, pollution and coral bleaching, through which warming waters prompt corals to expel microorganisms that help them survive.

Amid that gloomy news, the Scripps findings set a new benchmark for what a healthy reef should look like, and offer hope for restoration of degraded reefs.

A thicket of the branching Acropora“We view it as an opportunity to go back in time,” Smith said. “These uninhabited islands represent a window into the past, to see what coral reefs looked like hundreds of years ago. There’s no fishing, there’s no development, there’s no runoff.”

It also represents good news to people who rely on reefs for food, income and breakwaters, demonstrating that robust reefs are more productive.

“A healthier reef, where you want to dive, is also the one that gives the villagers more food, and protects their coastline,” said Stuart Sandin, a professor of marine ecology at Scripps.

The Scripps team began looking at the Line Islands in 2005, after charting out areas isolated from human impact, and outside normal trade and fishing routes.

Some host just a few thousand people; others have no permanent residents. So scientists could study the variation between the inhabited and uninhabited islands, and examine how a relatively pristine reef functions.

“To date, most of our research has looked at degraded reefs,” Sandin said. “What do sick reefs look like and what is the degree of their illness? But we never had a healthy reef to study.”

mini reefIn other reefs around the world, coral formations typically cover about 20 percent of ocean bottom, Smith said. By contrast, the pristine reefs they studied covered 70 to 90 percent of the sea floor, “which is just unheard of anywhere else on the planet,” she said.

Massive round-topped corals called porites grew many meters across and just as tall, stretching across the ocean like a forest of giant mushrooms. Giant clams wedged between coral fronds, while striped surgeonfish swam in impenetrable schools.

 

Check out the original article here on the U-T website!

*Photos are courtesy of  Jennifer E. Smith & Jill Harris

scripps oceanography uc san diego