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Study in underwater laboratory may help manage seaweed-eating fish that protect coral
Date:9/16/2011

A team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology is using the Aquarius underwater laboratory off the coast of Florida to study how the diversity of seaweed-eating fish affects endangered coral reefs. The research mission, which began Sept. 13, may provide new information to help scientists protect and even restore damaged coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Led by Mark Hay, a Georgia Tech professor of biology, the 10-day mission includes two Ph.D. students and a postdoctoral researcher who are living 50 feet below the surface in the unique underwater lab. Aquarius, which is about the size of a school bus, includes scientific laboratories and living quarters for up to six scientists who can live and work underwater for the entire length of the mission.

Hay's research team has been studying how seaweeds and fish affect the health of coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. They have shown that the natural defenses of seaweeds can harm the coral, and that plant-eating fish can control the growth of the noxious seaweed. The new studies will build on that knowledge and provide new information on the complex factors affecting reef ecosystems.

"Consumption of seaweeds plays a critical role in structuring coral reefs and in selecting for algal traits that deter herbivorous fish," Hay explained. "Recent studies have noted dramatic variance among species in the susceptibility of herbivorous fish to seaweed chemical and structural defenses. These differences can translate into dramatic direct effects of herbivore diversity on seaweeds."

Because certain fish species eat specific seaweed species, and certain seaweeds are more damaging to coral than others, differences in the diversity of seaweed-eating fish can have a dramatic indirect effect on corals as well as on changes in the structure and function of the endangered reefs.

"Our mission to Aquarius will allow us to study experimentally how herbiv
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Contact: John Toon
jtoon@gatech.edu
404-894-6986
Georgia Institute of Technology Research News
Source:Eurekalert  

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