My research focuses on understanding the factors that influence community structure in benthic marine ecosystems. The benthic community includes algae, corals, and other invertebrates. While I conduct research in a number of different systems, both pristine and degraded, my primary interests lie in determining how different anthropogenic (human caused) impacts affect coral reef community structure.
When coral reefs undergo degradation, a “phase-shift” usually occurs where reef-building corals are replaced by fleshy macroalgae. Phase-shifts are often considered to be irreversible and the end result is a macroalgal dominated community that lacks the diversity, complexity, and structure necessary to support a typical coral reef. I study the factors that cause these types of phase shifts. Specifically my research focuses on the importance of herbivory (or overfishing) and increased nutrient concentrations (in association with pollution from land) in maintaining the competitive balance between algae and coral.
My research often goes beyond basic ecology by integrating conservation, restoration, management and sustainability. In the future I plan to begin investigating the potential for reef restoration in an effort to understand if phase-shift reversal is possible.
Smith Lab: http://coralreefecology.ucsd.edu