It’s me–Sarah Harrison, rising senior in the White Lab, reporting from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science in New South Wales, Australia, and no, there are no really cool pictures of tarballs in this post! During the second week of July, I had the chance to attend the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Cairns, Queensland. Through Haverford’s KINSC Student Travel Fund and the Smithsonian Marine Station, I got the chance to spend five glorious days basking in all things coral reef related. The conference included some hard-core chemistry, molecular biology, ecology, and modeling talks, but it also had many talks on coral reef management and management-science hybrid talks, about responding to the newest science in meaningful ways. Between the poster presentations, lectures, and thoughtful Q&As (which often spilled over into coffee breaks), the conference really did feel like a cohesive and ongoing conversation about coral reef science and management, and it left me itching to jump back into the lab to learn more.
I presented a poster at the conference on a project I worked on during the summer of 2010 in the U.S. Virgin Islands with Dr. Valerie Paul, Ph.D., of the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. That summer we investigated the sea urchin Diadema antillarum’s feeding preferences.
You may be thinking to yourself, “What do urchins have to do with coral or coral reefs?” Well, allow me to draw a parallel with one of my favorite animals, the cow. (Everything can be explained through these humble herbivores, it seems!). If allowed to graze over an appropriate area of grass, a cow can maintain the grasses in the area so that they don’t grow out of hand and exhaust the soil. Similarly, sea urchins and other reef herbivores graze on all sorts of algae on a coral reef—both cyanobacteria and macroalgae—and in doing so, keep the algae at bay long enough for coral to carry out a normal life cycle and bring balance to the reef. In the 1980s there was a disease, still unknown to this day, that nearly wiped out Caribbean reefs of one of its chief grazers, the spiny sea urchin, Diadema antillarum. Predictably, with fewer grazers the algae cover of reefs grew, leading to less coral cover, and general decay in the coral reefs across the Caribbean.
What we were interested in was whether or not certain species of macroalgae and cyanobacteria chemically deterred the sea urchin Diadema antillarum. We tested this by three different assays. It turns out that the urchins were not huge fans of the brown macroalgae Lobophora variegata, Dictyota menstrualis and D. pulchella and the cyanobacterium Dichothrix utahensis. This subtle chemistry may have important consequences in shaping reef communities, because when given a choice, these urchins may not eat these algae when other more palatable species are available.
Finally, I want to share with you all a project that was presented on the final day of the symposium. The Catlin Seaview Survey hopes to become the Google Street View of coral reefs. So even if you didn’t have the chance to get your toes wet this summer, feel welcome to take a virtual dive and get all starry-eyed over the wonder of coral reefs!
My Top Five: ICRS
1) Incorporating the myriad of acronyms of the coral reef world into my own vocabulary: MPA (marine protected areas), OA (ocean acidification), COTS (Crown of Thorns Starfish), PNG (Papau New Guinea), the GBR (the Great Barrier Reef), and the CT (the Coral Triangle), to name a few.
2) Learning the term Charismatic Marine Megafauna: (noun) large sea animals that the general population is jazzed up about, like dolphins, sea turtles, dugongs, manatees, whales, and to a certain extent, sharks. I found myself quite enthused after l learned that the humble dugong, a distant cousin to the Atlantic’s manatee, has actually taken on two U.S. Secretaries of State in court and won. (See the 2005 case Okinawa Dugong v. Rumsfeld). Charismatic, indeed!
3) Having to pick between five fabulous talks at once, all day, every day for five days. Do I choose “Response of Coral Larvae to Deepwater Horizon Dispersant” or “Human Influence on Fish Biodiversity”? Or what about “Chemical Warfare on the Reef: Herbivores vs. Macroalgae”? Needless to say, my tiny, but mighty purple moleskin runneth over with crunched notes on all the talks I went to over the course of the week.
4) Realizing that I only met three other undergraduates over the course of the week! Three! Out of almost 2,000 attendees! Most of the coral reefers I met were on their way to finishing up their doctorate or were more established names in their respective fields, so it was a tiny bit intimidating!
5) Hearing Dr. Geoffrey Jones, Ph.D., a leader in the world of fish larvae recruitment, refer to adolescent fish as lost little Nemos finding their way home! So yes, I (kind of) did find Nemo at the Coral Reef Symposium!