A technique developed by UNSW Sydney marine biologists promises toefficiently identify which of Australia’s soft coral species are mostvulnerable to global warming.

UNSW marine biologists have developed a method for identifying Australia’ssoft corals that are most vulnerable – and most resistant – to rising seatemperatures and episodes of coral bleaching, and therefore, which species arein most urgent need of protection.

The new technique, published in Frontiers in Marine Science and co-developedby UNSW PhD student Rosie Steinberg, analyses unique markers within each coralspecies to identify which species of soft coral are more or less vulnerable torising ocean temperatures and marine heatwaves.

The technique’s description sounds a bit like a fancy recipe: researcherscollect and purée samples of wet frozen coral and then extract and count thenumber of algae and other organisms contained within the coral; the results ofthis process give them an indicator of coral health.

The team, from UNSW, the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, the Ruhr-University Bochum and Macquarie University, said the technique is animprovement on the current standard procedure for determining soft coralhealth – which they said is a lot more work than their new strategy.

“We developed this method while I was looking at a series of marine heatwavesat Lord Howe Island,” Ms Steinberg, lead author of the study, said. “It has[taught me] which species of soft coral are susceptible and resistant tobleaching at Lord Howe Island, which in the long term tells us which speciesare likely to remain if humans don’t get coral bleaching under control.

“Coral reefs are incredibly important for human health and livelihood. Coralreefs are an excellent home for fish and invertebrates that humans rely on forfood, like snapper, coral trout, cuttlefish, squid, crabs, and lobsters.

“In addition, live coral stores carbon, helping reduce the impacts of climatechange. But, bleached and dead corals are not very attractive homes, and deadcoral skeletons dissolve, releasing that carbon back into the ocean.”

The new method is important because there isn’t a lot of research and researchmethodology involving soft corals (octocorals) – one of the two types ofcorals, the other being hard (or stony) corals.

“Octocorals are understudied compared to their stony cousins,” Ms Steinbergsaid. “Because of this, there aren’t standardised methods to study severestressors like bleaching. Without these standard methods researchers have tospend extra time figuring out how to measure bleaching markers instead ofjumping right in and getting the data they need to find out what is going on.

“This method will help researchers understand the consequences of bleaching byallowing them to quickly and easily measure bleaching markers, and it willhelp new researchers in the field by removing barriers to data collection.

“Having a simple and straightforward technique to look at the health ofoctocorals during heat waves will encourage researchers to add octocorals aswell as stony corals to their experiments on bleaching to give a ‘big picture’look of reefs.”

This technique can be used to study marine life beyond soft corals. MsSteinberg already has plans for future studies. “I hope to modify thistechnique to see how marine heatwaves affect anemones as well”.

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