A UBC Okanagan research team has developed a computer modeling program to help scientists predict the impact of climate damage and ultimately restore plans for coral reefs around the world.
This is a critical objective, said Dr. Bruno Carturan, because climate change is killing many coral species and could cause the collapse of the entire coral reef ecosystem. However, because they are so complex, it is logically challenging to study the impact of destruction and regeneration on coral reefs.
Real-world experiments are impractical, as researchers would have to manipulate and disturb large areas of reefs, along with coral colonies and herbivore populations, and then monitor structural changes and diversity over the years.
“Needless to say, doing experiments that disturb natural coral reefs is unethical and should be avoided, while the use of large aquariums is not possible,” said Dr. Carturan, who recently completed his doctoral studies at the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science. “For these reasons, no such experiments have ever been done, which hinders our capacity to predict coral diversity and the associated resilience of reefs.”
For his latest research, which was published recently in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, Dr. Carturan used models to create 245 coral communities, each with a unique set of nine species and each occupying a surface of 25 square meters. The model represents colonies of coral and different species of algae that grow, compete and reproduce together while also being affected by climate.
Importantly, he says, all key components of the model, including species characteristics such as competitive abilities and growth rates, are informed by prior, real-world data from 800 species.
The research team simulated various scenarios—including strong waves, hurricanes or extreme heat—and then measured the resilience of each model reef noting damage, recovery time and habitat quality 10 years after the trouble.
By running dozens of computer modeling scenarios, the team found that more diverse communities—those with species with very different characteristics—were the most resilient. They recover better from damage and have a higher quality of housing 10 years after the disturbances.
“More diverse communities are more likely to have certain species that are very important for resilience,” explained Dr. Carturan. “These species have particular characteristics—they are morphologically complex, competitive and have a good recovery capacity. When present in a community, these species maintain or even increase the quality of the habitat after the disturbance. In contrast, communities without these species are often dominated by harmful algae in the end.”
Coral diversity determines the strength and future health of coral reefs, he added. Coral species are the foundation of coral reef ecosystems because their colonies form the physical habitat in which thousands of fish and crustaceans live. These include herbivores, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, which maintain coral habitat by eating algae. In the absence of herbivores, algae can kill many coral colonies, causing coral habitats to collapse, destroying many of their populations.
“What is unique about our study is that our results are applicable to most coral communities in the world. By measuring the impact of diversity on the resilience of more than 245 different coral communities , the range of diversity probably overlaps with the actual coral diversity found on most reefs.”
At the same time, the study provides a framework to successfully manage these ecosystems and help restore coral reefs by revealing how the stability of coral communities can be managed by establishing colonies of species with complementary traits.
Looking ahead, there are other questions that the model can help answer. For example, coral species that are important for resilience are also the most affected by climate change and may not be able to recover if rapid climate warming becomes constant.
“It’s a real, and sad conclusion that we may one day lose this important species,” said Dr. Carturan. “Our model can be used to experiment and maybe find out if the loss of these species can be compensated by other, more resistant, that prevent the collapse of reefs.”
The researcher used computer modeling to predict the health of the reef
Bruno S. Carturan et al, Functional Richness and Resilience in Coral Reef Communities, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.3389 / fevo.2022.780406
Provided by the University of British Columbia
Citation: Computer modeling aims to inform restoration, conservation of coral reefs (2022, August 2) retrieved 2 August 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-08-aims-coral-reefs.html
This document is subject to copyright. Except for any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Content is provided for informational purposes only.