All-Female Team Led by UB Biologist to Live Under the Ocean to Study Changes Occurring on Coral Reefs

Research will help marine managers better protect coral in Florida Keys

Release Date: April 5, 2002 This content is archived.


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Tonya Shearer, a UB doctoral candidate in biological sciences, is part of an all-female research team studying coral deep under the ocean

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo scientist is leading an all-female research team that will be living and working deep under the surface of the ocean and studying the parentage of a coral reef off the coast of Key Largo, Fla.

Mary Alice Coffroth, Ph.D., UB associate professor of biological sciences, and the other three members of her team will call the Aquarius, the world's only undersea laboratory, their home for 10 days, from April 15-24.

Their goal is to gather detailed data and tiny coral samples that will help determine how coral populations grow, providing an important tool for marine managers so that ultimately, the reef -- known as the Conch Reef -- can be properly managed and preserved.

The work, practically speaking, would be impossible to do from a typical surface-based diving operation.

That's because when ecologists go on dives, they can work at depths of 90 feet for just 25 minutes; then they have to come back to the surface and rest for 2 1/2 hours before their next dive to avoid decompression sickness ("the bends"), a condition that can cause pain, paralysis and, in some cases, death.

Since the Aquarius allows the scientists an opportunity to live at ocean depths continuously without having to surface, they can greatly increase their "bottom time."

"This is a really good application for Aquarius because it provides a huge amount of 'bottom time' and that's what these scientists need to be able to make such detailed observations about the coral," said Steven Miller, director of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which manages Aquarius.

"What they're looking at on this mission is the next generation of corals and we know that the existing population, especially in Florida, is in significant decline," he added.

"It's critical that we find out where the next generation is coming from."

For the duration of the mission, the Aquarius will be anchored about 4 1/2 miles off the coast of Key Largo. The scientists will be doing their research on the Conch Reef at ocean depths that vary between about 60 and 100 feet.

Throughout the mission, the main lock, or living quarters, of the Aquarius will be visible through a 24-hour live Webcam at Journal updates by the scientists also will be available at the site.

"We are asking, 'What will this coral look like in the future?'" explained Tonya Shearer, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences in UB's College of Arts and Sciences and one of the scientists making the trip.

In order to see into the future, the researchers are looking at the youngest corals, the tiny new colonies called recruits. Corals reproduce in one of two ways: Either larvae are released in the water and then settle nearby to mature, or egg and sperm are released into the water where they combine and then travel, sometimes as many as tens or even hundreds of miles, before settling onto a reef to mature.

"We are trying to determine if the new corals originate from the local adult population or if they were carried there by ocean currents from other coral reefs, possibly from a great distance away," said Shearer.

The answer could have a major impact on the steps that managers of marine resources take to protect future generations of coral.

"If the local population of adult corals is contributing the majority of juveniles, a decline in those adults resulting from a natural event like a hurricane or a manmade event, such as a ship running aground, ultimately will lead to a reduction in new corals for the next generation," Shearer explained.

"However, if a consistent supply of larvae from other adult populations is repopulating the reef, a significant decline in local adults may have little impact on the future generation of corals. In order for us to understand which adult populations should be managed and protected, it is important to know the source of the recruits."

Coffroth, Shearer and fellow "aquanauts" Dione Swanson and Leanna Rutten are taking a novel approach to determining changes occurring on reefs such as the Conch Reef, where their study will take place.

Theirs is one of the first studies to combine demographic and genetic studies of coral in a systematic way.

Swanson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami, will be studying the demographics of the coral by documenting the coral growth, death and recruitment through observations and extensive photographing, so that next year when the team returns she can record how the reef has changed. Rutten, a graduate student at Florida International University, will assist Swanson with reef surveys and marking, measuring and photographing hundreds of coral colonies.

Shearer and Coffroth will gather samples that will be subjected to months of state-of-the-art genetic testing when Shearer returns to the laboratory at UB to determine the relationship between different age classes of coral to determine potential larval sources.

"We are hoping to be able to identify the source of new coral recruits to Conch Reef through the use of extremely specific genetic markers," said Shearer.

For Coffroth and Shearer, the sheer luxury of so much "bottom time" is the main attraction of the mission.

"When you do a dive from the surface, the whole day is wasted," said Coffroth. "Here, we will stay down for 10 days and we can spend as long as six hours in the water at a time."

While the environment of the Aquarius often is compared to outer space, scientists refer to the submerged feeling as more akin to a type of "inner space." In fact, NASA uses the Aquarius to train astronauts.

"The coolest thing is, for 10 whole days, you're in a whole different world," said Coffroth, whose last foray into an undersea laboratory was in 1980. "You become so comfortable down there, you start to feel like 'this is where I belong.'"

The UB scientists are being funded by NOAA, the same agency that owns the Aquarius.

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