Team Finds New Ways For Coral Reef Ecosystems To Grow


Texas A&M researchers examined particulate organic matter and how it affects declining coral reefs in Hawaii.

For the first time, a team of scientists that includes three Texas A&M University researchers have found that microscopic oceanic organisms are important for coral reef growth and sustaining these vital ecosystems.

The team, which includes Texas A&M’s Kathryn Shamberger, assistant professor, and former Ph.D. student Andrea Kealoha, both from the Department of Oceanography, and Brendan Roark, associate professor in the Department of Geography, have had their work published in Geophysical Research Letters, part of the American Geophysical Union. Other collaborators are from the University of California Irvine, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

The researchers examined Hawaii’s Kāneʻohe Bay barrier reef and microscopic particles called particulate organic matter, or POM, which includes phytoplankton. Their results suggest that POM from the open ocean helps provide energy for a coral reef ecosystem to grow.

“An important distinction that we make in this paper is that we are looking at ’oceanic POM’ that comes from offshore and is brought onto the reef by currents and waves,” Shamberger said. “Coral reef organisms make a lot of POM that the reef feeds on, and it has been known for a long time that feeding on ‘reef POM’ is important for keeping the reef ecosystem healthy,” she said. “More recent studies have shown that coral reefs also feed on ‘oceanic POM’ and what is new here is that our results show this external food source might be helping the reef grow. We used carbon isotopes to distinguish between oceanic POM and reef POM.”

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