Research Team Spends Ten Days in Aquarius Underwater Lab to Study Coral Reefs

Written by on September 18, 2011 in Marine Life

Emily Tripp
Senior Writer

A team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology is using the Aquarius underwater lab off the coast of Florida to study how the diversity of seaweed-eating fish affects endangered coral reefs in the Caribbean.

The research team, led by Georgia Tech Professor Mark Hay, is living 50 feet below the surface in Aquarius, a unique underwater lab about the size of a school bus, for ten days.  Aquarius is owned by NOAA and managed by the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  This underwater lab can be extremely beneficial in research because it extends dive time and allows researchers to accomplish much more.

Previously, Hay’s research team has shown that the natural defenses of seaweed can harm coral, but plant-eating fish can control the growth of this dangerous seaweed.  The new studies will continue this research and provide new insight on the many factors affecting reef ecosystems.

Diver returning to Aquarius.

Diver returning to Aquarius. Photo credit: NOAA.

“Consumption of seaweed plays a critical role in structuring coral reefs and in selecting for algal traits that deter herbivorous fish,” explains Hay.  “Recent studies have noted dramatic variance among species in the susceptibility of herbivorous fish to seaweed chemical and structural defenses.  These differences can translate into dramatic direct effects of herbivore diversity on seaweed.”

“Our mission to Aquarius will allow us to study experimentally how herbivore diversity may be managed to conserve and even restore reefs,” he added.  “In previous studies, we have demonstrated that herbivore diversity affected the function and structure of the coral reefs. We plan to build on that research in this new study through Aquarius.”

Their mission will focus on evaluating changes in reef communities near Aquarius, where they have maintained cages with different species of fish for ten months.  They plan to determine the long term effects of these fish, which seaweeds are the most damaging and which fish can control these species the most, among other things.

“The particular biodiversity of herbivores may be as important as the density, or mass, of herbivores in determining the structure, function, and health of reef communities,” Hay said.  “We know too little of the species-specific effects of reef herbivores, how effects of multiple species sum to produce an overall effect, or which particular mix of herbivores is critical for suppressing aggressive seaweed to maintain reef function.”

For more information on the study check out this link.

Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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