‘On Super Corals and Where to Find Them (Or a Cautionary Tale of Using Memes in Science)’ – Part 1

by | May 7, 2018 | Corals | 0 comments

Meme: noun
1. a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.
2. a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.

ricordia florida
In recent years, a sensational term with little scientific value has been capitalized on by coral researchers seeking to attract media interest and funding towards their work: the super coral.
But what exactly makes a coral super, and from who and where did this idea first propagate?
In 2011 I gave a TEDx talk titled ‘A Hybrid Future: The Corals of Miami’ that revolved around a logic-defying specimen of hybrid Acropora prolifera I’d found living on the manmade seawall of PortMiami’s Government Cut shipping channel. Given the general audience, I used the term super coral in order to highlight why this hybrid coral was so exciting – and how it may represent the evolutionary potential of corals to adapt to swiftly-changing anthropogenic conditions.
The hybrid Acropora prolifera, photographed in daylight (left) and with a fluorescence filter at night (right) (Coral Morphologic) Coral Morphologic’s original definition of a super coral was one that had pioneered (as a larva) into an anthropogenically-disturbed environment, settled, and grown to reproductive adulthood. Hybridity and the expression of UV-protective green fluorescent proteins were two additional traits observed in the Acropora prolifera that seemed to qualify the addition of super for this particularly unique coral genotype. Also, it should be noted, in Miami, the adjective ‘super’ is added to all kinds of things in casual conversation.
Super – Miami’s enhancing adverb and adjective of choice. It’s not “really hot in here”; it’s “super-hot.”
But over the past 7 years, as the coral crisis has worsened, the term super coral has been repurposed by other coral researchers seeking to attract media and grant funding to their work. While it may make for a potent headline, the problem with the descriptor ‘super’ is that it doesn’t necessarily imply anything objectively scientific. Consequently, the subjectivity of the term has allowed the concept to be mutated to fit each researcher’s agenda like a meme. But in doing so, the term has since generated controversy within the coral science research community over its use, what it implies, and what realistically can be done to mitigate the ongoing coral reef crisis.
I first realized the super coral concept had gone mainstream when I was asked in the summer of 2017 to provide photographs for a book written by an anthropologist who has spent the past several years studying coral biologists and their professional culture. To my surprise, there was a chapter dedicated to ‘super corals’ in the table of contents, and one of the requested photos was that of the original hybrid Acropora prolifera from my 2011 talk. The anthropologist’s inquiry made me wonder whether I was indeed the first person to use the term super coral… and lo and behold it turned out I was not.
Based on research done via Google querying between 2000-2011, the only other recorded online usage of the term super coral was by eminent coral and climate change scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg during a 2006 TV interview with ABC Australia:
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldburg: “I don’t think we are going to find a magic bullet that is going to say, look hey there is this super coral and we can just grow it all over the reef. I think what we have got to do is to actually provide the best science to underpin, I think, the political decisions that have to be made about global climate change.”
From this interview, it appears Dr. Hoegh-Guldburg had already concluded there was no evolutionary ability for corals to adapt and survive in the Anthropocene. Instead he suggests that the best hope for the future of reefs would come from political action rather than scientific innovation. When coming from a pillar in the field, the assessment that politicians are better suited than his peers to preserve the future of coral comes across quite cynically bleak.
But the fact that the term super coral was first used in the media by a distinguished scientist from a skeptical, pejorative perspective only serves to highlight the biases the scientific establishment has long held against coral restoration concepts and ideas. I believe this conservative attitude displayed by many of the eldest coral researchers in the field has actually impeded development of progressive concepts that will help preserve global coral biodiversity and reef health.
Speaking from my own experience in the field of coral science, it was precisely this pessimistic attitude towards innovative coral aquaculture practices that drove me away from pursuing a career in institutional research. Back then, the majority of coral researchers were focused on studying dead and dying corals in the wild, rather than figuring how to keep them alive and reproduce in captivity. In 2007, after a fruitless search for a mentor in either coral aquaculture or corallimorph taxonomy, I took a leap of faith to develop Coral Morphologic as an independent platform for science, art, education, aquaculture, and public communication. Instead of depending on grant funding or corporate sponsorship, the goal was to power Coral Morphologic through the beauty of the corals (and corallimorphs) themselves in part to counter the overwhelmingly negative pathos emanating from many of the field’s most senior voices.
Rather than sowing more tales of doom-and-gloom, which may cause some to tune out entirely, we hypothesized that showcasing examples of corals’ morphologic adaptability and aesthetic beauty was a more productive way to inspire the public to care about the future of reefs on planet Earth. While delivering bad news about the environment might be an effective way to obtain media attention, it isn’t always the best way to motivate people with the proactive response you’re hoping for.
Empathy, or the lack thereof, is usually the difference between a person caring about an issue or not. While charismatic megafauna like pandas have long been the literal face of the environmental movement, corals lack a face entirely. Without a brain, cuddly fur, or eyes to make contact with, it is easy to see why they have been misunderstood for so long. But what they lack in cute facial features, corals make up through their captivating fluorescence, geometric beauty, and remarkably futuristic life history strategies. Rather than focusing on the habitat-scale declines of the reef, Coral Morphologic instead chose to highlight the individual-scale of the coral animals themselves in a way that builds empathy and symbiosis between human and coral. This focus on the individual was precisely our modus operandi in presenting the pioneering Acropora prolifera living along PortMiami as a super coral; one that defies expectations and serves as an inspiring example of surviving against all odds.
If you were to ask a coral biologist to describe what the ideal growing conditions for a coral should be, chances are they would characterize an environment with turquoise blue tropical water – the sort of scene from Tahiti or the Great Barrier Reef that you’ve surely seen dozens of times in the pages of National Geographic magazine.
More: ‘On Super Corals and Where to Find Them (Or a Cautionary Tale of Using Memes in Science)’ – Part 1


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