Coral reefs are huge underwater structures consists of the skeletons of colonial marine invertebrates known as coral. The coral species that build reefs are called herma typical, or 'solid,' corals because they extract calcium carbonate from seawater to produce a hard, robust exoskeleton that protects their fragile, sac like bodies. Other coral species that are not interested in the construction of the reef are known as soft corals. According to the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a non-profit conservation group, these types of corals are versatile organisms that often mimic plants and trees and include animals such as sea fans and sea whips.
Coral reefs are important for many different reasons aside from supposedly containing the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are as follows,
- shelters coastlines from the damaging effects of wave action and tropical storms.
- offers habitats and shelter for many marine organisms.
- Assists in carbon and nitrogen fixing.
- Aids with nutrient recycling.
In recent research, the work of the Smith laboratory focuses on understanding the factors like physical, natural, biological and anthropogenic that influence the social structure of marine benthic ecosystems. Although research is conducted in a number of different environments, The primary focus this lab is on tropical coral reefs and the rocky intertidal and kelp forest systems in California.
Shifting baselines and Remote reefs
Most of the expertise, the scientists have obtained from coral reefs has come from research on highly disturbed reefs that have been carried out over the past several decades. To understand what coral reef structures look like and how they operate in the absence of human interference, work has been carried out in the extremely isolated by Central Pacific and several collaborators. This research has revealed that coral reefs may be resilient to climate-related impacts in the absence of local human disturbance. This work is ongoing and includes detailed studies, observations, catalogs of taxonomy and selection of samples and statistical analysis. The results of these studies are used to set targets elsewhere in the world for the conservation and restoration of vulnerable reefs. This laboratory operates one of Palmyra Atoll's longest coral reef monitoring programs and just 10 years of data collection is done.
Coral Reef Restoration
The Smith Lab uses experimental biology to better understand methods for coral reef conservation. Here, two successful restore experiments are currently running. The first discusses invasive species removal methods in combination with coral transplantation at the Palmyra Atoll. This research specifically addresses how coral transplant spatial structure influences their development and survival. This experiment has been going on for four years. In addition, the Smith Lab is working to explore how enhancing the abundance of long-spined sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, may influence the recovery of degraded reefs. Here, the team are in the process of performing a sea urchin enclosure experiment in conjunction with Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) and San Diego State University (SDSU). In fact the group hopes to establish the Diadema density needed to reduce the abundance of algals and thus promote the recovery of corals.
Interaction between coral, algae & microbes & implication for ecology
There may be fierce competition for space on coral reefs where benthic species are often in direct contact with each other. Algae have been proposed to overgrow reef-building corals throughout the stages of reef destruction, but there has been no evidence to suggest how this happens. This research has been collaborating with a multidisciplinary group of researchers to establish that by enhancing microbial activity, photosynthetic algae can actually cause coral death. As most other primary producers are known to do, the primary trigger for this algal-mediated, microbe-induced interaction occurs as a result of leaking or exuding excess photosynthate or dissolved organic carbon (DOC). Since DOC can be restricted to bacteria, they respond by becoming more abundant and by raising their respiration rates; this can lead to a reduction in oxygenle. This is an active research field that highlights the dynamics of interactions between organisms within their natural environment.
Global Change & Marine Communities
The Smith laboratory was devoted to measuring parameters of global change at key locations around the world. Specifically, on both Palmyra Atoll and under the Scripps pier in La Jolla, California, the group has long-term Ocean Acidification (OA) monitoring systems. There is no way to track and how pH and temperature on the benthos, which is populated by key marine organisms such as kelp or reef-building corals, differ spatially and temporarily without long-term data sets. This research will provide a detailed and systematic overview of how, and to what degree, marine environments are already impacted by OA.