URI Scientist Studying Impact of Climate Change on Coral Reefs

By ecoRI News staff

A University of Rhode Island scientist and colleagues at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences are launching a new research project to examine the resiliency of coral reefs to global climate change. The project, funded by a grant from Pembroke Foundation International, aims to determine how rapidly corals can acclimate and adapt to warming temperatures and what the reefs of the future will look like.

Coral reefs have been declining around the world in recent years, in large part because bleaching caused by climate change, according to Hollie Putnam, URI assistant professor of biological sciences. She noted that the future health of many of the world’s reefs is in jeopardy.

“Corals are ecosystem engineers,” said Putnam, who joined the URI faculty in 2016. “They build the majority of the three-dimensional structure that forms their ecosystem, and without that ecosystem, we will have a tremendous loss of biodiversity, cultural resources, structural resources that protect coastlines, and a decline in reef-based fisheries and tourism.”

Putnam described corals as “meta-organisms” that have multiple organisms living inside them.

“They have tiny marine plants in them that provide energy to the host,” she said. “In warm temperatures, that symbiosis breaks down. And when the coral loses that energy, it can starve to death.”

The research team, which includes several URI graduate students, will focus on a common species of coral found in Bermuda called mustard hill coral. Using experiments in the field and laboratory, they will track the reproduction of the coral and test how robust the offspring are to various environmental conditions.

Samantha de Putron, a Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences marine biologist, said the research will ask whether “the current generation of corals will be better able to cope with stress as they continue to experience it. And will the next generation of corals be adapted to the environmental conditions experienced by their parents?”

Putnam, a coral biologist and molecular eco-physiologist, has conducted similar studies of how the environment of the previous generation of corals affects the survival and fitness of the next generation of corals in Pacific reefs.

“Comparing findings from corals in multiple geographic locations will allow us to better identify regional implications for reefs threatened by climate change,” she said.

Based on her work in Hawaii, Putnam said that some coral offspring perform better when their parents have been preconditioned to higher temperatures or greater acidity.

“But depending on the duration and timing of the stressor, we don’t know if the result will always be positive or how it may vary between species,” she said. “So we’ll be testing different coral species and a variety of temperature exposures.”

Part of the study will be conducted in a mesocosm facility that will be built at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences with funding from the grant. Mesocosms, which are used frequently in coral reef research, are outdoor experimental laboratories that enable scientists to provide high-resolution control of environmental factors — in this case, seawater temperature, pH and flow.

The three-year study will conclude in 2020.