Coral reefs

Coral reefs are the most biodiverse marine ecosystem and they are also amongst the most valuable providing humankind with hundreds of billions of dollars in goods and services per annum. They represent less than 0.2% of the ocean floor and yet they are estimated to harbour a quarter to a third of all marine life, most of which is found nowhere else.

However coral reefs are also one of the most threatened ecosystems, with threats ranging from direct human stressors, such as pollutions and overfishing, to global climate change impacts leading to ocean acidification and coral bleaching. Worryingly the recent Living Blue Planet Report estimates that we have lost more than half of reef-building coral cover globally over the last 30 years. This suggests it is now probably impossible to find a true baseline against which to measure biodiversity levels and assess how ecosystems functioned before human disturbance. Our best strategy perhaps is to use the few remaining reefs approaching ‘pristine’ conditions, as a result of their remote location away from direct human impacts, as baselines for measuring biodiversity and ecosystem processes. The Chagos Archipelago, or British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), in the middle of the Indian Ocean represents one such reference site, and has been the focus of one of our coral reef biodiversity studies for the last four years. In addition, the team also carries out long-term work around Utila in Honduras, and other fieldwork has been conducted in Madagascar, Kenya, Philippines, and Indonesia.

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Reef Cryptofauna Biodiversity

Reef cryptofauna refers to the small, often cryptic mainly invertebrate species that live within the reef framework itself. This component of biodiversity is hugely understudied in comparison to the fish and coral components, despite comprising the majority of reef biodiversity. The cryptofauna also play major functional roles in the ecosystem, such as in the trophic dynamics of detrital-based food webs and comprising an important dietary component of reef fish assemblages.

Our work on reef cryptofauna in Chagos aims to increase our understanding of how this component of biodiversity functions in the absence of most human stressors and its importance in the ecosystem. We focus on: i) quantifying this component of biodiversity on dead coral structures, the most productive reef microhabitat, using molecular and taxonomic techniques, ii) investigating their community structure, and iii) identifying the major drivers of cryptofauna community structure.

For more information see Catherine Head’s page here.

Coral Reef 3D Complexity

We’re studying how the 3D structural complexity of coral reefs influences marine communities on or around the reef. Our study sites are off the Honduran island of Utila and in the Wakatobi Marine Park of Indonesia.

For more information see Grace Young’s page here.


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Octocorals (a.k.a. soft corals or gorgonians) are a fascinating group of understudied corals. They are found all over the marine world from nearly frozen fjords to thousands of meters in the deep sea; to warm shallow tropical waters of a coral reef. These ubiquitous corals are notorious for their difficult taxonomy which is a labyrinthine matrix of clandestine characters that perpetually befuddled even the most expert in the field.

The Caribbean octocorals are the dominate corals of the sea, however, many basic studies have been overlooked because of this inherent difficulty in their identification. Octocorals in the Caribbean represent a proposed key stage in what is known as a phase-shift in biological regimes. As coral reefs continue to plunge into an inhospitable world, we look to the interactions of emergent dominant taxa to predict the future landscape of coral reefs.

For a media summary of some of this work in the field see here.

For more information see Vanessa Lovenburg’s page here.