Identifying critical reef-building coral species for system stability in the Caribbean

Raised of $3,000 Goal
Ended on 1/18/22
Campaign Ended
  • $600
  • 20%
  • Finished
    on 1/18/22

About This Project

Corals are bleaching at unprecedented rates due to global warming. The Caribbean has lost 70% of hard coral cover since the 1970s. However, some corals are more resilient to bleaching than others because they are associated with heat-tolerant symbiont algae. We want to examine coral-symbiont associations in the Caribbean to determine which corals in the community are most likely to survive future bleaching events and if these corals are in need of restoration.

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What is the context of this research?

Corals host zooxanthellae that provide food to their coral hosts and are critical for their survival. Coral-zoox relationships can be disrupted during marine heating by a process called coral bleaching, which leads to increased morbidity and mortality of coral hosts. Because the unique traits of coral and zoox species combinations determine their vulnerability to thermal stress, the regional loss of coral species is potentially predictable. What is not yet predictable is how the loss of coral and their associated zoox species will affect the remaining coral-zoox symbiosis network. A complete network will provide a basis for predicting how the loss of vulnerable Caribbean coral-zoox association will affect the stability of the network.

What is the significance of this project?

Coral-zoox combinations have different thermal tolerances and bleach or perish at different thermal stress levels. Given that recent bleaching events in the Caribbean are more frequent and severe, it is important that we know which corals and which zoox are going to last and which combinations will perish in the coming years. We want to determine the zoox identities for all Caribbean coral species, and their average thermotolerance scores for both partners, in order to identify potential vulnerabilities in the Caribbean coral symbiosis network. Identifying vulnerabilities in the network will help to inform and inspire resilience-based management of coral reefs in the Caribbean. This type of management strategy is key to operating sustainable fisheries and reefs for tourism.

What are the goals of the project?

The aim of this study is to apply a systems approach to all 65 known reef-building corals and their associated symbionts in the Caribbean to identify, first, the network-critical Symbiodiniaceae and their coral host species for Caribbean reefs, and second, which of these critical species are best adapted for surviving inevitable marine heating events and increasing average temperatures. Combining these results with measures for phylogenetic distinctiveness will provide a short-list of Caribbean corals for restoration projects to focus on. We will incorporate metadata about conservation status using IUCN and EDGE scores to determine which corals are most vulnerable to extinction in the Caribbean.


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All budget items will fund a 14 day sampling trip in the Caribbean as well as sample processing. The field portion will focus on gathering samples for 35 reef-building hard corals in the Caribbean; data have already been gathered for 33 other corals. SCUBA tanks rentals will allow for divers to collect coral samples (all other necessary diving gear is already owned by the divers). Once samples are collected, they will be processed to determine which ITS2 phylotype of Symbiodiniaceae are present in the corals. Budget includes cost to preserve samples until they can be processed at research labs in Belize and Curacao or until they can be shipped back to the Swain Lab at Nova Southeastern University.

Endorsed by

I am excited to Shaman launch this project. Bleaching is an existential issue for modern coral reef ecosystems affected by climate change and Shaman's research will not only fill basic knowledge gaps in our understanding of coral symbiotic relationships and how they are perpetuated generationally, but also attacks this problem from an entirely novel perspective to get us answers that can be applied now, when we need them most.
Shaman Patel is well qualified to carry out this project, as he has already carried out original research (as a senior honors thesis at the University of Rochester) on the ecology of reefs. The issue of global warming, symbiosis, and coral bleaching is extremely important, as corals reefs are the most diverse of any marine community type. Coral reefs also serve as protective barriers for the land, and will become even more important with rising sea levels. This is most timely and highly important research.

Flag iconProject Timeline

Data is being collected from literature at the moment. This will continue until the funding goal is met and fieldwork can begin. Fieldwork will likely occur in February-April of 2022. Data analysis and writing will follow immediately and the thesis will be defended in August 2022. A manuscript will be drafted shortly after the thesis defense and submitted for publication by the end of the year 2022.

Nov 19, 2021

Project Launched

Apr 01, 2022

Travel to Bonaire/Curacao

Apr 01, 2022

Travel to Belize

Apr 30, 2022

Complete lab work (genetics on samples)

May 31, 2022

Complete data analysis

Meet the Team

Shaman Patel
Shaman Patel

Team Bio

Please see our lab notes for information about our undergraduate research assistants.

Shaman Patel

In my travels for education as well as cultural exploration, I have been exposed to many different perspectives on life and all its wonders. My own fascination with the natural world has led me on a path that included field research in the Galapagos Islands, Mozambique, and the beautiful Pacific Northwest of the United States. I am currently building my scientific tool set by pursuing a Master of Marine Science degree from Nova Southeastern University. The Swain Evolution of Symbiosis Lab at NSU has given me an opportunity to study one of the most critical components of our marine world, coral reefs. Coral reefs interest me because they are highly valuable ecosystems for not only marine life, but also for the 500 million people around the world who depend on them as their source of food, income, and protection.

It is my goal to integrate concepts from systems biology, ecology, conservation, and economics to develop scientific inquiry that is characterized by forward-thinking and resilient management practices. It is my belief that humanity can actively pursue a balanced and progressive society while preserving the natural world we so dearly depend on. This project is a major step towards my goals, and I hope to provide novel insights that can contribute to the scientific community.

Additional Information

Byproducts of the paper include: a referenced list of all known reef-building corals in the Caribbean, genomic data for 35 corals-symbionts, network files that can be repurposed for reproduction of this analysis with additional data layers in other regions of the world.

2-3 undergraduate students will also be chosen to assist in this project. We hope to provide an invaluable research experience for eager academics that have lost opportunities for hands-on research mentorship during the Covid-19 pandemic. We plan to select qualified students that help us build an inclusive environment in order to foster a more diverse, equitable, and productive scientific workforce.

Project Backers

  • 4Backers
  • 20%Funded
  • $600Total Donations
  • $150.00Average Donation
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