Ecological selection drives genetic divergence in a reef building coral

A new study published in the open source journal PLoS ONE (Bongaerts et al 2010) sheds light on the connectivity of corals within and between reef habitats, with some pretty surprising findings. Whilst previous research has identified distinct differences in morphology and genetic structure over small spatial scales, these new findings from the outer-shelf reefs on the Great Barrier Reefs demonstrates that coral populations from directly adjacent habitats can show strong genetic isolation. To test this, the authors used the ubiquitous ‘birds-nest’ coral (Seriatopora hysterix), sampled across a depth gradient of ~30m across two outer-shelf reefs:

Whilst strong genetic structuring of both coral host and the symbiotic algae was observed across the samples taken across a depth profile (2, 6, 27 m depth), high genetic similarity was observed between reefs. This suggests that high levels of gene flow can exist between populations from the same habitats at geographically more distant locations (~20 km).

Scleractinian coral Seriatopora hysterix (the spikey pink / cream looking coral by the post in the second photograph) at 30m depth on Yonge Reef, GBR.

The results from the host and symbiont genetic profiling are pretty convincing:

Such striking differences between relatively shallow environments (e.g. 2 and 6m) implies adaptation of the entire coral (host plus symbiont) to distinct environmental niches. These strong associations to particular reef environments present a compelling case for ecological speciation in reef corals, in that evolutionary processes are occuring in the absence of physical barriers. In this case, corals become so adapted to a specific environmental niche, that selection drives them to become genetically distinct from neighbouring populations. While speciation is understood to be a critical mechanism for diversification on coral reefs, previously it was assumed that physical geographical barriers that isolated populations  (i.e. allopatric speciation) were the primary driving force of diversification in reef corals.

The study not only highlights the complexity of connectivity in reef building corals, but also points to the importance of conserving different reef habitat types in the design of marine parks. In this instance, corals in neighbouring reef systems 20,000m apart were highly similar, whereas corals in adjacent habitats separated by ~25m in depth showed strong differentiation. Given the projected increases in coral bleaching under future climate change scenarios, conservation of deeper reefs (e.g. 27m depth) is of key importance, as these reefs may act as a vital reproductive source for shallower reef areas to recover following disturbance events.


Bongaerts et al (2010) Genetic Divergence across Habitats in the Widespread Coral Seriatopora hystrix and Its Associated Symbiodinium. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10871. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010871

Hurricane plus BP oil spill: “a man-made experiment we wish we hadn’t made”

Dwarfing the Exxon Valdez: the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is ‘the worst environmental disaster the US has faced‘. As numerous attempts to stop the oil spill fail, the hurricane season in the Gulf looms large. What happens next is anyone’s guess:

A predicted busy hurricane season this summer is on a collision course with an unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the results are anyone’s guess, weather experts say.

“The problem is that this is a man-made experiment we wish we hadn’t made,” said Jenni Evans, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University.

Scientists on Thursday said as much as 19,000 barrels of oil have been spewing every day from the BP well in the Gulf, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Most of the oily water lies off the coast of Louisiana, where marshes and wildlife have been coated and the state’s fishing and tourism industries have taken direct hits.

Not only is it hard to track how contaminants would be redistributed by a hurricane, but it’s also hard to predict how the slick would affect the storm, NOAA Public Affairs Officer Dennis Feltgen and Evans agreed. (Read More @ CNN)

Could online maps save coral reefs?

Reefs at Risk is a World Resources Institute project that analyses current threats to coral reefs worldwide. The original groundbreaking report, released in 1998, provided a critical look at the world’s coral reefs and human impacts – coastal zone development, overfishing, sedimentation.

The next report, due this year (2010) is set to include a much more up to date analysis of global threats, including coral bleaching, disease and ocean acidification. This time, they are harnessing the power of Google Earth and Web 2.0:

Harnessing the power of interactive maps is Reefs at Risk Revisited, a conservation and research project headed by the World Resources Institute. It is in the process of updating its 1998 survey on the threats to the world’s coral reefs and central to the project is Google Earth.

The online map is being used to collect data from nearly 30 project partners, including WWF and Conservation International, and the final report will be freely available to the public.

People will be able to zoom around the world as they normally would, but instead of “flying” from their house to Pyongyang they will be able to almost literally dive into the reefs and discover the pressures on some of the world’s most delicate marine ecosystems.

Lauretta Burke who heads the project for the World Resources Institute is enthusiastic about the way in which interactive maps have enabled her team to gain more information and show it in an informative and engaging way.

“The new maps will be 64 times as detailed as the previous report,” she told CNN.

“The sharing of information has also improved [between research groups], which has allowed us to be aware of what has worked and how to replicate those success stories.”

More over at CNN (Hat-tip to Emily Beck).

Scientists are skeptics, denialists are ideologues


I recommend listening to this piece from Ockham’s Razor 9 May 2010 which is about the truly sceptical nature of science.  Basically, the President of the Australian Skeptics Society, Eran Segev, outlines importance of the skepticism within science and why many ideas that are circulating in society that pass to pass the test of true skepticism.  Not surprisingly, one of those examples explored is the issue of climate denialism:

The term ‘scientific consensus’ is often misused or misunderstood. A consensus arises when a significant majority of working scientists in the relevant field or fields, and the majority of scientific organisations in those fields, and the majority of scientific papers published in credible peer-reviewed scientific journals, all point in roughly the same direction. It does not mean a vote was held, and there is no suggestion that there are no dissenting voices or even that the consensus could not be wrong (as it most certainly can be). What it does mean is that those who are most able to judge the evidence, the experts, have largely been convinced by it.

Class Dissection: Lord Christopher Monckton lies exposed.

As we have previously outlined, Lord Christopher Monckton has lied about his membership of Parliament, and his role in winning the Falklands War for Margaret Thatcher. Here, Professor John Abraham from the School of Engineering (University of St Thomas, Minnesota) does an excellent job of dissecting Lord Christopher Monckton’s deceit on climate change. What is pretty amazing is that not a single one of Monckton’s claims stand up to scrutiny. If you have 60 minutes, sit down and listen to this revealing talk.

Underwater lab the first to plot impact of climate change on reefs


May 24, 2010

Scientists from the University of Queensland set up equipment in the first experiement of its type in the world.ON AN idyllic coral atoll just a two-hour boat ride from Queensland’s Gladstone Harbour, out past the endless line of tankers queued to load coal for export, a half-dozen scientists work frantically against the tide.

Their objective? To explore the consequences of rising atmospheric carbon – which evidence overwhelmingly attributes to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels – on the delicate chemistry of the reef and the creatures living there.

The project team, led by David Kline, a young scientist from the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, is completing tests on a new underwater laboratory that will expose living corals on the Great Barrier Reef to the more acidic conditions forecast for oceans by the end of the century.

A Queensland University researcher tests the Barrier Reef laboratory that will expose corals to the more acidic conditions forcase for oceans by the end of the century.A Queensland University researcher tests the Barrier Reef laboratory that will expose corals to the more acidic conditions forcase for oceans by the end of the century.

The team has spent weeks working around the ebb and flow of tides, connecting four narrow, two-metre transparent chambers pegged over the reef shelf to the complex technology required to manage and monitor them. Small fish and currents move naturally through the porous structures, two of which will be constantly dosed with seawater flushed with carbon dioxide to lower the pH.

”This system here is the heart of the experiment,” Dr Kline explains to a film crew from the BBC natural history unit as he stands in the shallows, patting his hand on a floating platform loaded with pumps, cables and 50 instruments, all in constant conversation with ”the brains” – a computer program running in a laboratory a few metres away on shore.

International interest is high because this is the first in situinvestigation of its type. Findings from the Free Ocean Carbon Enrichment (FOCE) project will be keenly studied by scientists around the world.

Fathoming the effects of ocean acidification – the ”other” carbon problem, one that emerged in scientific literature only a decade ago – has become one of the most urgent issues on the science agenda. The potentially diabolical consequences were highlighted in major briefing papers presented last week by the United States National Research Council to the US Congress and by the European Science Foundation to national leaders. The papers appealed to governments to give the issue priority for investigation and action.

”The chemistry of the ocean is changing at an unprecedented rate and magnitude due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions,” the NRC has said. ”The rate of change exceeds any known to have occurred for at least the past hundreds of thousands of years.”

Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves in naturally alkaline seawater, forming weak carbonic acid. Studies show the world’s oceans have a huge appetite for carbon, and have insulated humanity from greenhouse warming by gulping in about one-third of the emissions pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

But the process lowers the overall pH of seawater – by about 30 per cent over the past 200 years. It also soaks up carbonate ions, which are crucial to marine organisms making their calcium carbonate shells and skeletons.

The Heron Island experiment assumes a future with seawater twice as acidic as today, a more conservative take than published business-as-usual scenarios, which put the increase at 150 per cent by 2100. The question scientists are racing to answer is what a more acidic environment will mean for the tiny shelled zooplankton on which the marine food chain depends, and for the skeletons corals build into reefs.

The fear, explains the director of the Global Change Institute and head of the Australian Research Council-funded research team, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, is that the change hits these creatures on two fronts – creating a more corrosive environment, and depleting stocks of building materials. ”If these organisms can’t compensate for that … reef growth will slow until the reef superstructure begins to crumble. If coral populations disappear you put at risk about a million or so species, and all of the beautiful benefits to humans such as fisheries, coastal protection, tourist industries and so on.”

Meanwhile, he says, reefs are struggling with the effects of rising temperatures, which can trigger bleaching – when the stressed coral hosts expel the microscopic algae on which they rely for survival. He likens simultaneous bleaching and acidification to ”having two rhinos run at you from different directions”. Maybe by some miracle you will escape, but the odds are not good.

”Ocean acidification is already occurring and will get worse,” said Professor Jelle Bijma, lead author of the European Science Foundation document, when it was presented last week. Combined with warming, ”we are in double trouble. The combination of the two may be the most critical environmental and economic challenge of the century”.

Dr Kline says some of his corals will be airbrushed to mimic bleaching, to see how damaged structures respond to the more acid environment. This will provide clues on whether reef atolls will continue to provide a platform for new communities to grow – ”or is the balance going to shift … are these massive reef structures going to end up dissolving?”

To date, exploration of these questions has been limited to laboratory aquaria. ”But seeing how they behave in the natural world is vital to gaining a reliable sense of where the future lies,” says Dr Kline. Ecosystems may turn out to be more resilient – or less – than the models show. ”Here in the world, the corals are surrounded by their natural community – you have natural water, natural light,” he explains, making final adjustments to the chambers.

They rest on layers of sands that have their own complex chemistry of carbonates and biota, which may help corals cope with a more acidic future.

”I’m hoping that these environments have some ability to buffer the impact of ocean acidification, and thereby part of the biodiversity of islands and coral reefs would be preserved,” says Dr Hoegh-Guldberg. ”But its 50:50. I actually think that what we are seeing in the laboratory is repeated in nature.”

The Queensland coalmines may be just over the horizon, but ”this is a big fat canary”, he says of the reef.

”Something as complex and broad a feature as coral reefs is now sickening and dying … This is really giving us a warning sign that maybe the whole basis of our dependence on this planet, the biological and ecological services, will change.”

Steve McIntyre at the Heartland Institute’s “conference”

Here’s a pretty interesting and honest spin by the BBC on the Heartland Institute4th International Conference on Climate Change” (read: a bunch of industry funded anti-science shills gathering to obfuscate climate science and hide the decline):

“At the world’s biggest gathering of climate change sceptics, organised by the right-wing Heartland Institute, vegetarians were an endangered species. Wine flowed and blood coursed during a rousing address from Heartland’s libertarian president Joseph Bast. Climate change is being used by governments to oppress the people, he believes. After years of opposing government rules on smoking and the environment, Mr Bast now aims to forge a global movement of climate sceptics to end the “myth” that humans are endangering the atmosphere.”

Skeptics, denialists, either way, it’s pretty depressing reading. The interesting bit comes at the end of the article, describing the ‘anti-climax’ that was Steve McIntyre,

“.. the fervour reached a peak when the reluctant hero, Steve McIntyre, shambled on to the stage.

There was a moment of anticipation as Mr McIntyre stood nervously before the podium.
“I’m not used to speaking in front of such big crowds,” he mumbled. And he winced a little when one emotional admirer blurted that he had travelled 10,000 miles from South Africa for the thrill of hearing him speak.

But then came a sudden and unexpected anti-climax. Mr McIntyre urged the audience to support the battle for open source data on climate change – but then he counselled them to stop clamouring for the blood of the e-mailers. McIntyre does not want them jailed, or even punished. He just wants them to say they are sorry.

The audience disappointment was tangible – like a houndpack denied the kill.

This was clearly not the sort of emollient message the sceptics expected from one of their heavy hitters. And the speech slipped further into climate pacifism when Mr McIntyre confessed that he did not share the libertarian tendencies of many in the ballroom.

Click here to read the full article. You can find the videos of MacIntyre on Youtube (first of three below). It’s a little bizarre really, but well worth watching (if you can make it past the first 2-3 minutes, it’s pretty awkward to sit through).

Starck raving Reefgate?

Just when you thought that all the ‘gates’ had rusted off their hinges, another one has blown open!

Welcome to “Reef Gate” as created by diving enthusiast Walter A Starck who has taken issue with GBRMPA scientist, Lawrence McCook, and 20 other leading marine scientists.  Dr. McCook and his colleagues published a scientific review of the impact of marine protected areas within the Great Barrier Reef which shows “major, rapid benefits of no-take areas for targeted fish and sharks, in both reef and non-reef habitats, with potential benefits for fisheries as well as biodiversity conservation.”

As background, Dr Walter Starck has spent a good deal of time diving on the Great Barrier Reef and regularly contributes to the highly compromised Institute of Public Affairs claiming that the Great Barrier Reef is in good shape and that concerns of scientists and reef managers otherwise are sensationalised and overblown.  While he has not published in a peer-reviewed scientific paper for over 30 years, Dr. Starck is a regular contributor to popular magazines including one, the Golden Dolphin,  which he edits and funds himself.

Starck also does not believe in anthropogenic climate change (see under his signature under “Science and Technology Experts Well Qualified in Climate Science” on an open letter UN Secretary General His Excellency Ban Ki Moon BUT DOES BELIEVE in ‘crop circles’ which many enthusiasts of his ilk believe are caused by extraterrestrials.

Walter Starck began the exchange on April 16 by addressing an open letter to Prof Russell Reichelt, Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.  In his letter, Starck complained to Prof Reichelt that McCook et al. 2010 had not declared serious conflicts of interest arising from their employment and funding by GBRMPA. He also suggested that McCook et al. paper was slim on evidence and deliberately missed key evidence that would otherwise have told a different story about marine protected areas. Curiously, he did not reveal these other papers and data sets.

Not giving Prof Reichelt much time to reply, Dr Starck wrote two weeks later to Hon Min Peter Garrett to complain about GBRMPA’s failure to deal with the allegations.   This prompted a careful response in the form of a GBRMPA press release and letter of reply from Prof Russell Reichelt.

In his letter, Prof Reichelt carefully addresses each of Dr. Stark’s claims and makes a number of important points which lead to quite different conclusions to those of Dr Starck:

For example, Prof Reichelt points out that the paper by McCook et al has been reviewed and accepted by a prestigious international scientific journal. As with any publication in a leading journal, the McCook et al. paper would have had to go through rigorous and independent review. As part of this process, the paper’s data sources, methodologies and conclusions would have been scrutinized by 2-4 independent and anonymous expert reviewers. Given that GBRMPA had no control over the journal’s quality assurance process (the journal being no less than the Proceedings of the US Academy of Sciences!), the idea that GBRMPA would have been able to influence the paper such that  it would erroneously support GBRMPA’s desired position without the burden of evidence is, simply, far-fetched.

The second major point is that, contrary to Starck’s claims, McCook et al. 2010 did list their sources of support for the study. Among those listed were GBRMPA and the Pew Foundation.   Given that all authors had also clearly indicated their address and association with their employers, it doesn’t look like much of a cover-up! At this point, the claim of ‘serious misconduct’ seems a bit of a stretch at best!

The third major point that Prof Reichelt makes is that McCook et al is actually a review paper not a research report and hence builds on the results, methodologies and conclusions of many other papers (all listed at the back of the paper). That is, the claim by Dr Starck that McCook et al precariously rests on the conclusions of a single figure or data set is at odds with the actual contents of the paper.

In a reply to Prof Reichelt’s letter, Walter Starck tries unsuccessfully to keep the issue alive.   Further unsubstantiated accusations of cherry-picking and of misconduct follow – as well as claims that there was he was being prevented from accessing the data.  Again this is curious given that Dr. Starck makes this claim without having ever asked anyone for access to the data. As far as I understand, no one has any problem with him accessing the data.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is that Dr. Starck is well known for making claims about how great the health of the Great Barrier Reef is without a single shred of scientifically published evidence.  It seems that he has one standard for reef science and another one for the basis of his own conclusions about the Reef and, dare I say it, crop circles.  Perhaps if Dr Starck wishes his concerns to be taken seriously, he should publish his ideas through the peer-reviewed scientific literature rather than proffer unsubstantiated opinions and allegations that do little to further the otherwise careful science that has and is being done to understand and preserve our Great Barrier Reef.

Lost Generation

Here is a truely inspirational Palindrome: not only does this video read the opposite in reverse, the meaning is the exact opposite too (credit to Jonathan Reed):

I am part of a lost generation

and I refuse to believe that

I can change the world

I realize this may be a shock but

“Happiness comes from within.”

is a lie, and

“Money will make me happy.”

So in 30 years I will tell my children

they are not the most important thing in my life

My employer will know that

I have my priorities straight because


is more important than


I tell you this

Once upon a time

Families stayed together

but this will not be true in my era

This is a quick fix society

Experts tell me

30 years from now, I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce

I do not concede that

I will live in a country of my own making

In the future

Environmental destruction will be the norm

No longer can it be said that

My peers and I care about this earth

It will be evident that

My generation is apathetic and lethargic

It is foolish to presume that

There is hope.

And who is this “Lord” Monckton you ask?

The Republican party of the United States of American, in just a few hours, will put forth a single witness to rebut the testimony of widely respected scientists on the science supporting anthropogenic climate change.  This is beyond bizare.  I only heard of him less than a year ago and now he is one of the biggest names in the media’s phony climate change “debate”.  He has said so many nutty things and has been refuted so thoroughly by so many people, it is really hard to know where to begin. So here is a small sampling of the lies of Lord (he really isn’t one) Monckton.

You can see some of our posts on his lies about ocean warming in the waters off Australia and on a range of other topics here.

Take a look at Tim Lambert’s coverage of Monckton here.

And by all means, watch these two riveting videos by Peter Sinclair (and note Peter has his own web site now where he releases and hosts his videos here):

Peter also has a list of Monckton-revealing links with his videos, that I will borrow and share with full attribution him:

Debate: Monckton and Tim Lambert……

Dr. Pinker’s explanation…

Snowball Earth animation created by Eurisko Studios

National Academy of Science-
“Origin and Evolution of Earth: Chapter 3, A Habitable Planet”…

Monckton’s artful graphs…

Fabricated Quote…

Detailed Account of Monckton’ s errors…………

Claims to be member of Parlaiment……

Claims to have won the Falkland’s war, by
giving the Argentinians diarrhea…

Cure for Aids/Nasa crashed its own satellite……

Politifact finds Monckton “not only be unsupported but preposterous” on
the Copenhagen treaty…

Open letter to Rockefeller and Snowe…