Collaborative research: Ecology and functional biology of octocoral communities
Howard Lasker Principal Investigator
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The recent past has not been good for coral reefs, and journals have been filled with examples of declining coral cover, crashing fish populations, rising cover of macroalgae, and a future potentially filled with slime. However, reefs are more than the corals and fishes for which they are known best, and their biodiversity is affected strongly by other groups of organisms. The non-coral fauna of reefs is being neglected in the rush to evaluate the loss of corals and fishes, and this project will add on to an on-going long term ecological study by studying soft corals. This project will be focused on the ecology of soft corals on reefs in St. John, USVI to understand the Past, Present and the Future community structure of soft corals in a changing world. For the Past, the principal investigators will complete a retrospective analysis of octocoral abundance in St. John between 1992 and the present, as well as Caribbean-wide since the 1960's. For the Present, they will: (i) evaluate spatio-temporal changes between soft corals and corals, (ii) test for the role of competition with macroalgae and between soft corals and corals as processes driving the rising abundance of soft corals, and (iii) explore the role of soft corals as "animal forests" in modifying physical conditions beneath their canopy, thereby modulating recruitment dynamics. For the Future the project will conduct demographic analyses on key soft corals to evaluate annual variation in population processes and project populations into a future impacted by global climate change. <br/><br/>The broader impacts of this project will be at multiple educational levels. At the university level, the project will have impacts on the quality of the academic environment at an RUI institution (CSUN) and a leading PhD-awarding institution (University of Buffalo). Additionally, it will provide unique opportunities for training and research by graduate students, as well as opportunities for undergraduate participation in fieldwork through existing funding and REU supplements. The PIs will build on an existing relationship with a high school in St. John, USVI since 2006. We will host: (1) marine biology club activities at the school through participation of faculty, a postdoctoral research associate and graduate students, (2) laboratory opportunities focused on the biology of soft corals, (3) field opportunities for teachers from the US to work in St. John, and (4) with the support of parents and CSUN, will offer a St. John field trip for select students from local schools. The reach of these opportunities will be broadened through new collaborations with two teachers based in the public schools of LA County. Finally, in the Caribbean established "ecocamps" at the host marine laboratory will be used to work with children from Caribbean islands to provide educational experiences focused on ecology and conservation.