A Better Understanding of Coral Reef Ecosystems

Pelagic predators such as these barracuda, Sphyraena qenie, are part of the coral reef ecosystem in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by Kevin Lino).
A team of scientists have embarked from Hawai'i on a three-month survey of coral reef ecosystems at Johnston Atoll, the U.S. Phoenix Islands, the islands of American Samoa, and the U.S. Line Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The overarching objective is to better understand the coral reef ecosystems of these areas, many of which are seldom explored. The research expedition is part of a regular monitoring program, conducted by the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), headquartered in Honolulu, Hawai'i. The expedition is supported by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and involves extensive cooperation among NOAA scientists and research partners, including the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego State University, and the Papahānaumaokuākea Marine National Monument.

The research expedition will be carried out from February 27 to May 24, 2012 aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai. Under the leadership of Chief Scientists Dr. Jill Zamzow, Dr. Bernardo Vargas-Angél, and Jamison Gove, a diverse team of researchers will be conducting multidisciplinary coral reef ecosystem surveys, assessing the status of fishes, corals, algae, marine invertebrates, and the oceanographic conditions in which these organisms exist. The scientific data collected during the three-month research expedition will enable informed and effective implementation of ecosystem-based management and conservation strategies for coral reef ecosystems, helping to ensure their protection for generations to come.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Visitor at Dawn

by Cristi Richards
Flying Fox seen over Cockscomb, Tutuila (photograph by Benjamin Richards)
Preparations for each day of diving generally begin before sunrise, when a quiet, sleepy hush still envelopes the ship. This seemed especially appropriate when yesterday morning, just before sunrise, a silent, graceful silhouette was observed gliding behind the ship. It wasn't a bird but a flying fox or fruit bat.

There are three species of bats living in Samoa, two large fruit-eating bats and a smaller insect-eating bat, which are the only three native mammals in the Samoan Islands. These can seem odd to visitors coming from places where bats are small and generally hard to find or see. In Samoa the sight of a flying fox is a common occurrence. The bat following the ship this morning was one of the fruit-eating varieties which can attain up to a 3 foot wingspan and making it either a Pteropus samoensis (Samoan Flying Fox) or a Pteropus tonganus (Tongan Fruit Bat). While most bats are nocturnal, these bats can be seen throughout the day soaring on thermals or moving between roosting and feeding sites during the dawn and dusk hours.

Both species of bat consume a variety of foods including nectar, pollen, sap and the juice of fruits and leaves. Eating only the juice, the bat will chew on the fruit and press the pulp against the roof of it's mouth creating a pellet of dry pulp known as an ejecta. The ejecta is then spit out to make room for more pulp. This process makes it easy to determine where bats have been feeding and by analyzing the ejecta (commonly found on the hood of your car if you happen to park under a breadfruit tree).

The fruit bats found in Samoa also play an important role in pollination and seed dispersal, increasing the productivity of fruit trees transporting seeds to cleared areas. This aids the natural reforestation process. We are not sure how our flying fox visitor came to be sailing behind the Hi'ialakai instead of feasting in a breadfruit tree, but it was an impressive sight that caught the attention of everyone awake at that hour.

Natural History Guide to American Samoa, 3rd edition, 2009. P. Craig, editor

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