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Why species matter
Date:6/17/2014

UC Santa Barbara doctoral candidate Caitlin Fong travels to French Polynesia often but not for vacation. She goes there to study a coral reef ecosystem influenced by human impacts such as overfishing and nutrient pollution.

Her work focuses not only on biological changes but also methods scientists use to determine within-group group responses to ecological processes. The findings are published in ESA Ecology, a journal of the Ecological Society of America.

Fong and Peggy Fong, a professor in UCLA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, conducted a study assessing the usefulness of functional form groups often used by community ecologists. The researchers examined the practice of grouping species with homogenous responses to major ecological forces as well as predicting group responses in established conceptual models.

They found that the two commonly used models for grouping coral reef macroalgae the relative dominance model and the functional group model failed to consistently generate groups that responded uniformly to experimental manipulations of key ecological processes.

"A lot of times, functional group forms are defined based on morphology and phylogeny," said Caitlin Fong, "but they are defined without empirical testing." Morphology comprises the specific structural features of organisms while phylogeny deals with their evolutionary relationships.

As an undergraduate, Caitlin Fong visited Moorea in 2010, just months after tropical cyclone Oli hit western French Polynesia. The storm was the final blow to the coral reef, already made vulnerable by an invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish, a coral predator.

"The reef had been subjected to a variety of stressors that caused the loss of coral dominance," she explained. "In fact, researchers think that increased fishing and changes in land use have resulted in reefs worldwide shifting from coral to macroalgae-dominant states."

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Contact: Julie Cohen
julie.cohen@ucsb.edu
805-893-7220
University of California - Santa Barbara
Source:Eurekalert  

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