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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A brief, and rather fishy, history of life

By Oliver Vetter

Transiting for days between islands can be a difficult pastime, even with our modern conveniences, because when the ocean decides to move, it can be quite disrespectful to the forecasted conditions foretelling of calm seas and a gentle swell. I write this during that forecasted time as we topple and yaw, pitch and roll, over a swell that is neither calm nor gentle. But it does offer a healthy dose of perspective, of both the vastness of the ocean and the smallness of man, that we so often overlook on land while irritated about our commute, or talk show tragedy, or which contestant might win American Idol. The gentle rolling of my stomach, poorly syncopated with the movement of my computer screen, prompted a search into where our bizarre fascination with the treacherous mother ocean stems from and why we just can’t seem to keep our toes dry.
Oceanographers… just can’t keep their feet dry.
Lets start at (almost) the beginning. I’ll fast forward some of the earlier millions of years, but as far as any reasonable theory goes, life formed on Earth around 3 billion years ago with a little help from a meteor shower that formed our moon, stabilizing the Earth’s own pitch, roll and yaw, that helped form suitable conditions for life. The Earth’s crust cooled below water’s boiling point and the gaseous H20 in the atmosphere condensed and fell to earth as rain, pooling in the low lying areas, to form the early oceans. This is where the ocean science stuff gets interesting; the primordial soup of organic molecules concentrated over time, becoming more and more complex, eventually becoming simple organisms and the first life on Earth.
A deep-sea hydrothermal vent. The beginnings of life?
The soup we crawled out of could have begun in various different environments, one theory being deep sea hydrothermal vents where Archaea, the earliest single celled organisms, still thrive. This was the first step in the evolution of all life on Earth. These guys quietly sat down there for about 100 million years before they figured out photosynthesis, but once they got the idea they then cranked out so much poisonous gas it caused the largest mass extinction in the Earth’s history: The anaerobic bacteria, that was quite happy watching the new moon and new tides and changing chemistry, all died out due this nasty poison… oxygen.
Energy to matter, matter to amoeba, amoeba to flatworm, flatworm to fish, fish to frog, frog to lizard, lizard to mammal, mammal to monkey, monkey to man.
The great oxygenation event that ensued opened the door for significant advances and more complex life on Earth. The free energy in Oxygen was much more readily available to living organisms than the previous anaerobic system, and life evolved at an accelerated rate. From there it was a hop skip and a jump of mutation and adaption; single celled organisms became multi-celled complex organisms. Complex cells became simple worms - these gave us brains and eyes, worms became fish – offering us internal skeletons, amphibians became reptiles – developing lungs and limbs, reptiles became amphibians – with nervous systems, from amphibians came land mammals – giving us ever greater intelligence, from land mammals evolved monkeys – with social ability, facial recognition and tools, and then Man. What will we leave as our legacy?
Man’s Legacy? Plastic, carried by the ocean currents to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands of Papahanaumokuakea.
So in the big history of things we’re fresh out of the ocean ourselves, the reptiles crawled out onto land about 250 million years ago, some even decided to go back. Today’s modern whales have vestigial hip and leg bones from generations past that took their land adaptions back to the sea. This got me thinking: Why not us? We’re a salty bunch, us marine scientists, clumsy and awkward in the ocean compared with those animals we see and study around us. But we answer a silent call to the water, despite our backwards knees and opposable thumbs, that is perhaps louder in us than most. If a visceral desire to understand the sea is a first step in adapting back to our mother ocean, perhaps we can convince everyone else that maybe she’s worth treating a little better.
Something worth evolving for?

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