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Summer research focusing on critically endangered coral reef species

Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) corals are major reef-building corals found off the shores of Florida and throughout the Caribbean. In recent decades there has been a widespread decline in distribution and abundance of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Their decline is the product of compounding effects from local stressors and global factors linked to climate change including ocean acidification, sea level rise, coral bleaching, disease, and the increased severity of hurricanes. The loss of the Acropora species negatively affects the reef function and structure. This summer, McMaster University student, Heather Summers, in collaboration with Operation Wallacea and the Cape Eleuthera Institute, has been investigating the abundance and distribution of the Acroporid coral populations in South Eleuthera, Bahamas. Undergraduate dissertation student, Heather Summers, recording the habitat assessment score at one point along the transect.

The purpose of this study is to collect qualitative and quantitative observations of coral reefs for use in the development of a mathematical model that will help describe these complex marine ecosystems. The data collected includes benthic assessment, species abundance, bleaching status, and environmental conditions of temperature, pH, and salinity. At each site transects are laid out and benthic communities are assessed using habitat assessment scores (HAS) and the line-point-intercept method in order to quantify the coverage of live scleractinian coral and macroalgae. This research project also investigates the impact of predation and herbivory on coral health by recording the abundance of key fish families and invertebrates including Diadema antillarum, Scaridae, Acanthuridae, Pomacentridae, and Pterois. The information amassed by this research project can help inform decisions on coral nursery site selection and identify potential donor colonies for regeneration in the nursery.

Staghorn coral colony

Coral reefs are complex, dynamic marine biomes and their health is reliant upon many factors. This complexity makes coral reefs ideal platforms for the development, testing, and validation of mathematical models that can be used to help explain and predict the impacts of adverse conditions on Acropora health.

Elkhorn coral colony

If you spot any elkhorn or staghorn on Eleuthera or elsewhere throughout the Bahamas please report it to us!

Sea Turtle team supports the Bahamas National Trust summer camp

On Thursday, July 28th representatives from the sea turtle research team at CEI went to the Leon Levy Preserve in Governor’s Harbour to share their knowledge about sea turtles with 30 Bahamian children attending the Bahamas National Trust Camp Safari. The week focused on herpetology and during a morning block the CEI team taught the campers about sea turtles. A presentation explained the 4 different species found in The Bahamas - green, loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback - as well as about their life cycle and some of the threats that these reptiles are facing as well as some conservation measures that are helping restore populations.

Research Technician, Anna Safryghin, teaching kids at Camp Safari about sea turtles.

The campers were very interested and particularly enjoyed videos of sea turtle hatchlings crawling towards the sea.  After the slide show presentation everyone participated in an activity where the campers had the chance to practice their sea turtle identification skills, by realizing two dimensional models of the 4 species of sea turtles, as well as learn some important facts about their diet and habitat. During the whole event, the kids were very excited to learn and had many questions. This opportunity for outreach and education was very successful and we are grateful to the Bahamas National Trust for inviting us to join in the camp.

Kids testing their sea turtle identification skills

CEI scientists present research at the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

written by Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick The International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) is the olympics of marine biology and is only held every four years. It is the primary international meeting focused on coral reef science and management. The 13th symposium was the biggest yet, bringing together some 2,500 coral reef scientists, policy makers and managers from 97 different nations. This meeting is very important because it provides the international science community with a platform to:

  • Increase global knowledge and interest in coral reefs, including sustainable use and conservation strategies;
  • Showcase successful science, conservation and management efforts;
  • Develop collaborations and partnerships to increase international capacity to address coral reef issues; and
  • Increase global awareness of reef degradation and possible solutions by extensive promotion in the media.

CEI scientists Zach Zuckerman, Dr Aaron Shultz and Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick present their parrotfish research

Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick wrapped up her time with CEI by presenting on the lionfish feeding studies and the summary of the 5-year culling program along with a collaborative project with Zach Zuckerman and Dr Aaron Shultz on the impacts of CO2 on the grazing and metabolic rates of parrotfish.  Jocelyn was not alone – many researchers that conducted fieldwork at CEI, CEI intern alumni and ex-Island School faculty were also in attendance!

Dr Jill Harris (Island School faculty 05) recently completed her PhD in marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she was happy to keep running into Island School student and faculty alums. Now she works for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, DC, studying how to make MPAs more effective and presented on this work at the symposium. Jill’s job is mostly about scuba diving and statistics, just like at The Island School!

ICRS was attended by a number of the Island School community. Dr Curtis-Quick met Island School faculty alums Jill Harris and Kim Falinski along with numerous CEI visiting researchers and CEI intern alum Jason Selwyn.

Dr Kim Falinski (Island School faculty 06) began an MSc in Agricultural Engineering at Cornell University, specializing in recirculating aquaculture systems after leaving The Island School.  Kim’s thesis brought her to Waimanalo, HI, to work at Oceanic Institute on scaling up microalgae production for copepod feed.  Kim then worked as a professor at the local community college before starting her PhD at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Kim’s specialty is land based source pollutants – sediments from poor land management practices and nutrients from wastewater and inorganic fertilizers.  Today Kim works at The Nature Conservancy in Honolulu as a water quality scientist on the Marine team, which she presented on at ICRS. In her free time free time, Kim races big sail boats and run triathlons. “The Island School most certainly sent me on this path” says Kim.

The symposium covered an array of topics including coral reefs and climate change, cutting edge technology in coral science, community-based management, coastal pollution and the role of Marine Protected Areas. The main goal of the symposium wasbridging science to policy to inform and increase the effectiveness ofcoral reef conservation worldwide.  The week was huge success – we all look forward to the next meeting in 4 years’ time.

First Island School Student to Presents Research Poster at BNHC

Andrieka presenting the ponds research CEI was well represented at the regional 2016 Bahamas Natural History Conference, with representatives giving talks on plastics, climate change, rare shrimp, turtles, conch, sharks and lionfish. More excitingly, the first Island School alumni joined with the research team! Andrieka Burrows, BESS scholar of Fall 2015, attended the conference to present the anchialine ponds poster. Anchialine ponds are landlocked bodies of water with marine characteristics that are connected to the sea through underground conduits. There are over 200 of these ponds on the island of Eleuthera, however, there is very little known about these ecosystems. Dr. Jocelyn Curtis-Quick and Alexio Brown, with a team of Island School students, including Andrieka, gathered baseline data on the ponds in order to determine their status and need for protection.

There was much interest in the inland ponds work

Research advisor Alexio Brown and Dr Curtis-Quick were very proud of Andrieka

The students found an alarming number of the ponds were impacted by humans.  To conserve these ecosystems, there is a need to raise awareness. Andrieka did this by presenting the work of her research class at the Bahamas Natural History Conference (BNHC). The conference was hosted by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), who manage the protected areas in The Bahamas. Andrieka spoke about why these ponds are so understudied, and her hopes for more research to be carried out in the future.

“The Bahamas Natural History Conference turned out to be all that I expected,” said Andrieka. “Not only did I get the opportunity to interact with world renowned scientists, who presented their captivating work, but I also got to present my anchialine pond research to these very same scientists.”

Andrieka created much interest in ponds, and did an exceptional job presenting the poster, making her research very advisors proud.

Flats team picks up acoustic receivers and finds elkhorn coral

Georgie Burruss secures a receiver to a cinderblock after downloading the data from the device. Last week, the Flats Ecology and Conservation team downloaded data from a large-scale passive acoustic telemetry array designed to track bonefish to their pre-spawning aggregations. A total of 61 receivers were placed around Eleuthera to track the movements of 39 bonefish and 14 barracuda that were implanted with acoustic transmitters. The research team downloaded key receivers and found schools of bonefish moving over coral reef habitats at night near tidal creeks on the East coast of Eleuthera, indicating that these fish may move offshore to spawn on the windward side of the island. Stay tuned for more updates in June.

A healthy stand of Elkhorn coral

Helen Conlon signals okay after redeploying a receiver.

As a bonus, while collecting receivers the team got to swim by several Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) colonies, an IUCN-listed critically endangered species. Elkhorn coral grows rapidly, providing significant structure and habitat for reefs throughout the Caribbean, though it is in severe decline as a result of coral bleaching, predation, storm damage, disease, and human activity. Though it was heartening to see so many healthy colonies of this critically endangered species, they are small compared to the large stands of dead elkhorn that used to thrive in the area. Our reef restoration project has begun mapping these areas and will be monitoring its growth.