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Computer Modeling Program Helps Coral Reef Conservation Efforts

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A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia Okanagan has developed a computer modeling program that helps scientists predict the effect of climate damage and eventual restoration plans on coral reefs all across the world.

According to Dr. Bruno Carturan, this is a crucial step in fighting against climate change, which is killing many coral species and contributing to the collapse of entire coral reef ecosystems. With that said, coral reefs are extremely complex, making it difficult to study the impact of devastation and regeneration of them.

Problem With Real-World Experiments

Real-world experiments are not practical since they would require researchers manipulating and disrupting large areas of reefs, coral colonies, and herbivore populations. They would then need to monitor any structural changes and diversity over several years.

Dr. Carturan has recently finished his doctoral studies with the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science.

“Needless to say, conducting experiments that will disturb natural coral reefs is unethical and should be avoided, while using big aquariums is simply unfeasible,” says Dr. Carturan. “For these reasons, no such experiments have ever been conducted, which has hindered our capacity to predict coral diversity and the associated resilience of the reefs.”

Dr. Caturan’s latest research was published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Creating Coral Communities

He used models to create 245 coral communities, with each one having a unique set of nine species and occupying a surface of 25 square meters. The models were designed to represent coral colonies and the different species of algae that grow, compete, and reproduce together while being impacted by the climate.

Dr. Caturan says that all the key components of the models, including species’ traits, are informed by pre-existing, real-world data from 800 different species.

The team simulated various scenarios like strong waves or intense heat before measuring each model reef’s resilience. They noted any damage, recovery time, and the quality of the habitat 10 years after the disturbance.

These simulations and scenarios led the team to discover that more diverse communities were most resilient, meaning they were better at recovering from damage and had greater habitat quality 10 years after the disturbances.

“More diverse communities are more likely to have certain species that are very important for resilience,” Dr. Carturan said. “These species have particular traits—they are morphologically complex, competitive and with a good capacity to recover. When present in a community, these species maintained or even increased the quality of the habitat after the disturbance. Contrastingly, communities without these species were often dominated by harmful algae at the end.”

He also says that coral diversity determines the strength and future health of coral reefs.

“What is unique with our study is that our results apply to most coral communities in the world. By measuring the effect of diversity on resilience in more than 245 different coral communities, the span of diversity likely overlaps the actual coral diversity found in most reefs.”

The new study also provides a framework to successfully manage these ecosystems and assist with coral reef restoration by revealing how the coral communities’ resilience can be managed with established colonies of species with complementary traits.

“It is a very real, and sad conclusion that we might one day lose these important species,” Dr. Carturan concludes. “Our model could be used to experiment and perhaps determine if losing these species can be compensated by some other, more resistant ones, that would prevent the eventual collapse of the reefs.”

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.