The Protists Prophets: An Innovative Way to Unlock the Past, Present, and Future of Coral Reefs

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Coral reef ecosystems are rapidly declining due to numerous local and global pressures such as climate change and pollution. In response to the coral reef crisis, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Ocean Foundation (KSLOF) conducted the Global Reef Expedition (GRE) to assess the state of coral reefs in 16 countries around the world. The expedition helped generate extensive data collection including coral reef maps and benthic surveys and 2,500 sediment samples from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. After traveling more than 50,000 km conducting research, the GRE’s valuable data opens the curiosity to explore unconventional approaches to globally evaluate coral reef health.

Now, the Khaled Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (UM-RSMAS) are working together on a new project called Protist Prophets. Run by Dr. Sam Purkis’s lab at RSMAS and funded by the National Science Foundation, this exciting project uses the sediment samples KSLOF collected on the GRE to evaluate global reef health using benthic foraminifers (forams) as markers of environmental changes and stressors. Our innovative scientific efforts will inform reef conservation strategies and develop non-traditional reef management techniques. Plus, we will assemble the Little Creature with a Big Message educational curriculum using the foram data to complement the foundation’s existing Coral Reef Ecology Curriculum available in the KSLOF Educational Portal.

Corals in the Anthropocene

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This guest blog comes from a former KSLOF fellow, Dr. Anderson Mayfield, who joined the foundation on many of our Global Reef Expedition research missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A former student of the renowned coral biologist Dr. Ruth Gates, Dr. Mayfield studies coral health and physiology at NOAA’s AOML Coral Program and at the University of Miami’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies. He continues to publish scientific papers based on data collected on the Global Reef Expedition, including his latest paper, recently published in the journal Oceans.

As a naïve post-doctoral researcher back in 2012, I had an idea that was surely far from novel at the time: corals of far-flung, uninhabited atolls are in better shape than those closer to major human population centers. The logic was that these corals would be under global-scale stressors only (namely those associated with climate change), and not the threats that instead plague reefs close to cities (such as pollution and overfishing).

As a fellow with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation during their Global Reef Expedition (GRE), I tested this hypothesis by sampling corals from among the most seemingly pristine islands and atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Although we certainly observed beautiful reefs with high coral cover (see image above) and diversity as well as a plethora of fish —all the visible hallmarks marine biologists look for in ‘healthy’ reefs—the corals themselves told a different story (Mayfield et al., 2017); high cellular stress levels were documented in the vast majority of the many hundreds of corals sampled across the GRE.

Despite looking healthy, the corals were struggling to survive.

These high stress levels do not, in and of themselves, imply that all such sampled corals are not long for this Earth. They do signify, however, that we likely never visited ‘pristine’ reefs during the GRE, despite studying some of the most remote coral reefs on the planet. This is a testament to the wide reach of climate change. This statement may come as a surprise to some, who, like me, assumed that somewhere out there, one might find corals entirely untouched by humankind, but this unfortunately does not appear to be the case.

Our Living Oceans: Threats to Our Oceans, now playing on EarthxTV!

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Throughout the Global Reef Expedition, the Living Oceans Foundation observed signs of declining ocean health and its impact on coral reefs and coastal marine ecosystems. What are the biggest threats to our ocean, and what can be done to protect it?

Find out in the 4th episode of Our Living Oceans, now playing on EarthxTV!

Tune in to hear from experts from the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and our fellow scientists and conservation leaders working around the world to protect and restore ocean health.

This episode features many scientists and partners who joined us on the Global Reef Expedition, as well as renowned marine scientists Dr. Daniel Pauly, Dr. Ben Halpern, and Dr. Nancy Knowlton. In this episode, you will also hear from celebrated deep-sea explorer, Her Deepness Dr. Sylvia Earle, about her hopes for the future of our ocean.

Watch Our Living Oceans online or on the EarthxTV app today, and discover the hidden life within our living oceans.