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A Warning About the Health of Coral Reefs Gets Worldwide Attention for Study Led by Kent Carpenter

Climate change and environmental degradation are threatening a third of the world's reef-building corals with extinction, according to a new study led by Kent Carpenter, the Old Dominion University marine biologist who coordinates the Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA). Findings of the study were published Thursday, July 10, on the Science Express Web site.

The GMSA, which is headquartered at ODU, worked with leading coral experts in producing this first-ever comprehensive global assessment to determine the conservation status of coral reefs. News media worldwide produced reports on the study.

Carpenter is the lead author. Co-authors, who come from two dozen institutions and organizations in the United States and 10 other countries, include four more researchers associated with ODU and GMSA: Suzanne R. Livingstone, assistant research professor in biological sciences; Beth Polidoro, GMSA research associate; Jennifer Smith, GMSA research assistant; and Jonnell Sanciangco, ODU graduate student in biological sciences.

Two organizations, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Conservation International (CI), run the GMSA. The IUCN also maintains the Red List of Threatened Species, to which this new coral species assessment will be added.

"The results of this study are very disconcerting," said Carpenter. "When corals die off, so do the other plants and animals that depend on coral reefs for food and shelter, and this can lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems."

Coral reefs in shallow tropical and subtropical seas have built up over millions of years and are home to more than a quarter of marine species. In fact, the reefs are the most biologically diverse of marine ecosystems.

But corals have been shown to be highly sensitive to changes in their environment. The study points to localized stresses such as those that result from destructive fishing, sediment runoff and pollution. The warning mounts, however, when the scientists turn to the fallout from climate change, which can cause rising water temperatures, more intense solar radiation and, potentially, ocean acidification. Coral bleaching and disease brought on by these conditions often brings mass coral mortality, the report says.

"These results show that as a group, reef-building corals are more at risk of extinction than all terrestrial groups, apart from amphibians, and are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Roger McManus, the CI vice president for marine programs. "The loss of the corals will have profound implications for millions of people who depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods."

Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of IUCN, added, "We either reduce our C02 emission now or many corals will be lost forever."

The study found that the Caribbean region has the greatest number of highly threatened corals, and that the rich-biodiversity "Coral Triangle" in the western Pacific's Indo-Malay-Philippine Archipelago (IMPA) has the greatest proportion of vulnerable and near-threatened species.

Carpenter's research in recent years has shed light on the rich marine diversity of the IMPA, and he is expanding upon that work currently as the lead principal investigator on a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Partnerships for International Research and Education award from the NSF also provides support for scientists from 15 universities, including Duke, Penn State and NYU in the United States, and others in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The GMSA, from its facilities on the ODU campus, is coordinating assessments not only on corals, but also on seagrasses and mangroves that are important habitat-forming species, as well as on all marine fishes and some keystone invertebrates. By 2012, the GMSA plans to complete a comprehensive first-stage assessment of the threat of extinction for 20,000 marine plants and animals.

This article was posted on: July 11, 2008

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