On November 27th we embarked on the first field trip with researchers from NOAA and University of Miami for the next phase of Coral Morphologic’s long-term project to document, study, and conserve Miami’s unusually resilient ‘urban corals’. That is, the corals that have pioneered into Miami’s intercoastal waterways as larvae and settled onto man-made infrastructure. It is precisely Miami’s legacy of anthropogenic disturbance that led Coral Morphologic to recognize that the City was a real-world window in which to understand how corals may adapt and evolve to anthropogenic impacts.
Studying genetic variation and the underlying causes of these variations is at the heart of a global effort to identify more resilient coral genotypes capable of restoring degraded coral habitat. Most of this research has focused on traditionally healthy, offshore reef habitats and identifying corals that show more resilience to stress than neighbors, or in experimental lab settings with distinct coral colonies of the same species subjected to stressful conditions. However, our project proposes to sample the tissue of healthy coral colonies (specifically Pseudodiploria strigosa and Porites asteroides) living in less than ideal ‘urban’ conditions, as well as healthy coral living offshore in ‘natural’ conditions, to determine if the genetic variation between sites is significant. The sample sites will also be surveyed and scientifically described by community assessment and seasonal changes through photo mosaics, monitoring of water chemistry, temperature, pH, and light levels, to quantify and compare site conditions. The final phase of this project will involve transplanting corals to the tip of PortMiami from each of the ‘urban’ sites, along with fragments from the offshore, natural reef to compare how each is able to adapt, and eventually developing an ‘urban coral’ nursery to grow the most resilient coral genotypes for restoration of reefs and laboratory research.
But the first task in this year-long study was to characterize each of the study sites through photo-mosaics that create three dimensional maps using a pair of GoPro cameras. These maps will serve as our detailed baseline imagery to better understand the forces of coral recruitment, growth, mortality, competition from macroalgae, and the accumulation of trash/ debris over time. Watch the video above to see each of the three urban coral research sites and the techniques used to document them. We look forward to providing updates over the course of the year as we document the sites, analyze transcriptomes, transplant corals, and characterize range of water quality and chemical conditions that Miami’s urban corals endure.