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.

Foraminifera are windows to understanding long-term coral reef stress

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This guest blog comes from Dr. Alexander Humphreys, a geology lecturer and researcher at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is working with Dr. Humphreys and our partners at UM on a new National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project, “Protists Prophets,” that is looking at benthic sediment samples collected on the Global Reef Expedition (GRE) to assess the state of the coral reef environment over the past 1,000 years.

I am a modern benthic foraminiferal researcher, which means that I study some of the tiniest organisms in the ocean in order to learn about past environmental conditions on coral reefs. However, before we get to this story, let me first explain a bit about these little critters and their importance to science.

Foraminifera, or forams for short, are protists, which are single-celled amoeba-like organisms that grow a protective shell, called a ‘test’. Today there are roughly 4,000 species of forams and they can be found living in all the world’s oceans, from polar environments to the deepest ocean trenches nearly 11 km down. Forams are important to science because they have short lifespans and are sensitive to environmental change. This sensitivity causes rapid shuffling of species abundances over time as the environmental conditions and climates gradually—and sometime abruptly—fluctuate. When the life of a foram comes to an end, the story does not stop there because even though the organism decays, its hard protective test preserves well and fossilizes, laying down evidence of these population changes in the geologic record—one that goes back 500 million years! I approach this deep fossil record of foraminifera like the pages in a book that tells the story of oceanic and environmental change. The trick is learning how to read the story that these little protists have to tell.