Computer modeling program helps coral reef conservation efforts

A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia Okanagan has developed a computer modeling program that helps scientists predict the effect of climate damage and possible restoration plans on coral reefs around the world.

According to Dr Bruno Carturan, this is a crucial step in the fight against climate change, which is killing many species of coral and contributing to the collapse of entire coral ecosystems. That said, coral reefs are extremely complex, making it difficult to study the impact of their devastation and regeneration.

Problem with real-world experiences

Real-world experiments are impractical because they would require researchers to manipulate and disturb large areas of reefs, coral colonies, and herbivore populations. They would then have to monitor structural changes and diversity over several years.

Dr. Carturan recently completed his doctoral studies at the Irving K. Barber School of Science.

“It goes without saying that conducting experiments that will disturb natural coral reefs is unethical and should be avoided, while the use of large aquariums is simply not possible,” says Dr Carturan. “For these reasons, no such experiment has ever been conducted, which has hampered our ability to predict coral diversity and associated reef resilience.”

Dr. Caturan’s latest research has been published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Create coral communities

He used models to create 245 coral communities, each with a unique set of nine species and occupying an area of ​​25 square meters. The models were designed to represent colonies of corals and different species of algae growing, competing and reproducing together while being impacted by the climate.

Dr Caturan says all key components of the models, including species traits, are informed by pre-existing, real-world data from 800 different species.

The team simulated various scenarios like strong waves or intense heat before measuring the resilience of each reef model. They noted damage, recovery time, and habitat quality 10 years after the disturbance.

These simulations and scenarios led the team to find that more diverse communities were the most resilient, meaning they recovered better from damage and had better habitat quality 10 years after disturbance.

“More diverse communities are more likely to have certain species that are very important for resilience,” Dr Carturan said. “These species have particular traits: they are morphologically complex, competitive and with a good capacity for recovery. 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 were often dominated by nuisance algae in the end.

He also says that coral diversity determines the strength and future health of coral reefs.

“What is unique with our study is that our results apply to most coral communities around the world. By measuring the effect of diversity on resilience in over 245 different coral communities, the extent of the diversity likely overlaps with the actual coral diversity found in most reefs.

The new study also provides a framework for successfully managing these ecosystems and aiding in coral reef restoration by revealing how the resilience of coral communities can be managed with established colonies of species with complementary traits.

“It’s a very real and sad conclusion that we could one day lose these important species,” concludes Dr Carturan. “Our model could be used to experiment and perhaps determine if the loss of these species can be compensated by other, more resilient ones that would prevent the eventual collapse of the reefs.”

Ryan H. Bowman