Scientists have begun an eight-day mission, in which they are living and working at 60 feet below the sea surface, to determine why some species of coral colonies survive transplanting after a disturbance, such as a storm, while other colonies die. Coral reefs worldwide are suffering from the combined effects of hurricanes, global warming, and increased boat traffic and pollution. As a result, their restoration has become a priority among those who are concerned. Using as a home base the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aquarius--an underwater facility for science and diving located in Key Largo, Florida--a team of "aquanauts" is working to protect coral reefs from this barrage of threats by investigating ways to improve their restoration.
"It's like living on the space station, except that it's underwater," said Iliana Baums, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State and a collaborator on the project. "The job is dangerous because, once the aquanauts descend, their tissues become saturated with nitrogen. If they were to return to the surface quickly, they would get the bends--an often deadly illness in which tiny bubbles form inside the body. As a result, the divers at the end of their mission must spend an entire day depressurizing by making their way to the surface slowly."
A molecular ecologist, Baums is providing the genetic expertise that will reveal whether particular coral colonies contain forms of genes that allow them to survive transplantation and other stresses, such as increasing sea temperatures. The team has collected hundreds of coral fragments from two species: staghorn coral--which is listed as threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act--and a type of star coral that is common throughout the Caribbean. "We carefully designed the experiment in order to minimize its impact on natural populations," said Baums, who added that one of the collection sites was slated for de
|Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy|