Exploring coral reef resilience
When looking at the sand on a beach, one might not realise that it can contain many different types of shells: from the larger shells of invertebrate molluscs to the tiny shells of microscopic single-celled organisms called foraminifera. Dr Stephanie Stainbank, a member of the KZN Museums Natural Science Department (Malacology), is participating in an international research project that is using the diversity and the geochemistry recorded in these shells to assess the health and functioning of coral reefs. Monitoring the health of these ecosystems is important as it helps to determine how resilient they are to anthropogenic (human) and climatic impacts.
At the beginning of September 2022, this team of researchers conducted fieldwork on the coral reefs of Lizard Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This work forms part of a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) funded project ‘RESILIENCE’, which is led by researchers from the University of Geneva (Dr Elias Samankassou) and the University of Fribourg (Dr Silvia Spezzaferri). As a member of this team, Dr Stainbank will study the shells found within the coral reef sediments, which will provide valuable information on the overall ecosystem health and in particular, the impact of bleaching events. Bleaching is one of the main threats to global coral reefs as corals are host to algae (Zooxanthellae), which provide a vital food source through the process of photosynthesis to these organisms. However, when seawater temperatures are too high or the light is too intense, corals will either expel or digest their photosynthetic algae, leaving them with a characteristic white appearance. This loss of their algae is detrimental, as without them corals will eventually starve.
This project builds on previous research conducted in the Maldives and future fieldwork is planned, within the scope of the RESILIENCE project, on global coral reef study sites. This exciting, multi-year project will contribute to our overall understanding of coral reef ecosystems, which are critically important biodiversity hotspots.