Mote Marine Lab on Summerland Key is working this month with an international team of coral ecologists researching the causes and effects of a major threat to corals throughout the world -- ocean acidification.
Ocean acidification occurs with the lowering of oceanic pH levels due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Larger amounts of carbon dioxide in the air are making the world's oceans more acidic, and in turn, reducing the amount of calcium and carbonate in the oceans. Corals need both to form their hard skeletons.
Coral ecologists with Mote and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, Israel, have partnered to test the effects of ocean acidification and rising sea temperature. The researchers gathered for two weeks at Mote's Summerland Keys lab to further their research.
The ecologists focused on two species of coral found in the Florida Keys -- Porites porites, commonly called finger coral, and Porites astreoides, commonly referred to as mustard hill coral.
Mote's lab looked like a mini-disco tech as the two species of coral were exposed to bright red, blue and purple LED lights, mimicking differing scenarios of sunlight. The ecologists also altered the pH levels and temperatures in the water to create different environmental conditions that corals in the wild could be exposed to in the future if pH levels and temperatures continue to rise.
The researchers are also looking at the corals on a microbial level and researching several other physiological parameters of coral to see how ocean acidification is impacting them.
"We are looking at this at so many levels," said Maoz Fine, a coral ecologist and expert in the field of ocean acidification at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences. "That's how we will understand how this system will respond to changing environmental conditions."
The research could help Mote and other ocean conservation groups determine what species and genotypes of coral fare better against ocean acidification and other stresses. This would give them guidance on what types of coral to rear in the coral nurseries and replant back on the reef, said Emily Hall, a coral ecologist with Mote working on the ocean acidification study.
Mote, The Nature Conservation and the Coral Restoration Foundation have a half-dozen coral nurseries throughout the Keys, where they rear coral that is later planted on the reef or used for research purposes.
"This could allow Mote and others to focus its restoration efforts," Hall said. "We can see what different species and genotypes do better or worse."
Mote researchers plan to do similar work with Fine on Red Sea corals in December, Hall said.
"This partnership (with Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences) has allowed us to not only look at this with a global perspective, but also see how each of these reefs is responding to these changes," Hall said.