Color offers insight into coral reef depletion, researchers show

Jasmin Sun

While most scientists agree that coral reefs are in danger of dying, they point their fingers at causes that range from global warming to water pollution. New research from UT researchers suggest there could be a way to slow down the process.

UT scientists published a study Wednesday in leading biological research journal “Proceedings B” that shows a possible link between the color of coral larvae and their propensity either to settle and develop within their original reef or to disperse and spawn in a more remote area of the ocean. Such an ability could allow corals to travel to cooler climates if necessary — a handy trick considering the narrow range of the marine organism’s temperature tolerance.

As of yet, the implications of such an ability are too uncertain to draw definite conclusions about the potential uses of this information. However, researchers hope the finding will improve tactics for determining the health of a coral reef.

“We’re still not quite sure what it means yet,” said Carly Kenkel, an ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student who co-authored the paper. “It would be cool if the color could [tell us something about the coral] instead of having to apply complex biological techniques.”

From there, decisions of where to direct resources and which reefs to try to save can be more efficiently made, said Mikhail Matz, an integrative biology assistant professor.

“You could make better decisions in reef management,” Matz said.

It would be possible to invest in the reefs that are more resistant to destruction or more able to “bounce back” once devastated, he said.

“Coral reefs have been in decline for the last 25 years, so any tools we can come up with to better help coral reefs are fantastic,” Gregor Hodgson, the executive director of the nonprofit reef preservation organization Reef Check. “Whether or not this is actually practical remains to be seen, but so far the study itself is fascinating.”

Matz has led the study since 2006. The National Science Foundation recently awarded him a grant to continue his coral research. Matz said he hopes to complete the research by the end of the year.