Fifty Years of LSU Research on Corals
By: Christine Wendling
LSU is at the forefront of coastal environmental issues. One of the many coastal topics studied is the health of our oceans and waterways, including coral reefs, which are a critical source of food and a link to many medical discoveries. The College of the Coast & Environment is raising awareness of threats to coral reefs through their upcoming event “Coral Reefs in Crisis” on March 1-2. The event is an effort to explore the causes of coral bleaching, a phenomenon in which corals lose their color as a result of heat stress, as well as possible solutions.
Coral reefs are important to the health of the ocean’s ecosystem, and organisms that live on coral reefs are major sources of new pharmaceuticals, including treatments for cancer, arthritis, asthma, AIDS, and other diseases. At least half a billion people worldwide rely directly on healthy coral reefs for their food and livelihood.
Several LSU faculty members have been involved in coral reef research for nearly half a century. Some prominent examples are:
- Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of the College of the Coast & Environment, CC&E, was part of the landmark Symbios Expedition to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1971. The team conducted the most comprehensive study of coral reefs undertaken until that time. The project aimed to paint a picture of the Symbios Expedition from its conception and execution through how its scientific results influence our present understanding of coral reefs. D’Elia testified in Congress about coral bleaching in 1988 and served as co-organizer of the 1991 “Workshop on Coral Bleaching, Coral Reef Ecosystems and Global Change.” The international workshop was held in Miami and supported by NSF, NOAA and EPA
- Harry Roberts, Emeritus Boyd Professor of CC&E, was part of a pioneering study of corals off of Grand Cayman in the mid-‘60s. He and a team of researchers mapped the marine geology of the whole island, including the reefs around the island. Eventually, a focal point of their research turned to how waves and currents might affect the geomorphology of the reefs, or how they are oriented and shaped within their environment. Currently, he is working on a paper to be published that examines the effects of sea level rise on corals.
- Paul Sammarco, adjunct professor Emeritus of Oceanography at CC&E, with colleagues, recently published an article, “Abundance of Corals on Offshore Oil and Gas Platforms in the Gulf of Mexico,” in the journal Environmental Management. In the past, he has researched coral reefs within the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary, in the Gulf of Mexico, seeding artificial reefs, i.e., decommissioned oil platforms near the sanctuary. Seeding takes place when coral larvae are transported by currents to other locations. He is also exploring using these platforms and their corals for mariculture, the cultivation of fish for food.
- Nan Walker, professor of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at CC&E, has been researching the physical processes affecting coral reef health since 1980. Walker provided the first comprehensive spatial study of shallow water cooling as one form of thermal stress affecting coral distribution and health.
- Kristine DeLong, associate professor of Geography & Anthropology, is currently researching reef history in the Gulf of Mexico, including at the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary. Coral contain rings, similar to those in trees, that can be counted to determine their age. And, large coral can live for many centuries. Using the chemistry of a coral skeleton, DeLong can identify the temperature of the water at the time the skeleton was formed, even centuries before now. Her research shows that summer water temperatures have been warming in the Gulf of Mexico for the past 274 years, whereas winter temperatures have not.
- In August 2018, CC&E will welcome new faculty member, coral reef ecologist Dan Holstein, whose research focuses on coral reef metapopulations and refugia, including mesophotic coral reefs, and how these ecosystems may bolster the resilience of coral reefs in an uncertain future.