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03-12-2024

'Coral superhighway' connects and protects remote coral reefs

Through genetic analyses and oceanographic modeling, scientists have discovered that ocean currents form a “coral superhighway” in the Indian Ocean, facilitating the exchange of larvae between distant islands in the Seychelles.

This important research, spearheaded by Oxford University, unveils a remarkable phenomenon within the vast expanse of the Seychelles’ coral reefs, demonstrating that they are not as isolated as once thought.

Science of connection across a coral superhighway

Dr. April Burt, from the Department of Biology at Oxford University and the Seychelles Islands Foundation, highlights the significance of this discovery.

“This discovery is very important because a key factor in coral reef recovery is larval supply. Although corals have declined alarmingly across the world due to climate change and a number of other factors, actions can be taken at local and national scale to improve reef health and resilience,” Dr. Burt explained.

“These actions can be more effective when we better understand the connectivity between coral reefs by, for instance, prioritizing conservation efforts around coral reefs that act as major larval sources to support regional reef resilience,” she concluded.

How scientists unraveled this coral network

The study’s approach was collaborative, involving various coral reef management organizations and the Seychelles government.

Researchers collected coral samples from 19 different sites, uncovering recent gene flow and suggesting frequent larval transfers among populations. Intriguingly, the research also hinted at a previously unidentified species of the bouldering coral Porites lutea.

Oceanographic models were employed to simulate larval dispersal, revealing the paths larvae take across the region.

This modeling suggests not only direct dispersal across the Seychelles but also the potential role of “stepping-stone” dispersal, where centrally located reefs act as intermediaries, linking distant islands.

Power of prediction: Oceanographic modeling insights

Dr. Noam Vogt-Vincent, who led the oceanographic modeling, emphasizes the importance of these findings for reef management.

“This research suggests that the broad agreement between predicted connectivity and observed genetic patterns supports the use of such larval dispersal simulations in reef system management in Seychelles and the wider region,” Dr. Vogt-Vincent said.

“These simulations also allow us to investigate how regular these connectivity patterns are in time, because a regular larval supply will be essential for reef recovery in the face of climate change,” he concluded.

Visualizing the larvae dispersal journey

The Oxford study is made accessible through a novel new app, allowing users to visualize the potential journeys of coral larvae across the region. The implications for conservation are profound, offering a tool to identify vital larval sources for protection and restoration efforts.

Professor Lindsay Turnbull, the senior author of the study, points out the timeliness of this research as El Niño events threaten coral reefs worldwide.

“This study couldn’t come at a more timely moment. The world is once again watching, as El Niño devastates coral reefs throughout the Indian Ocean,” Turnbull asserts..

“Now we know which reefs will be crucial to coral recovery, but we can’t pause in our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stopping climate change,” she continued.

The study’s findings are poised to inform the Seychelles Marine Spatial Plan Initiative, as noted by Dr. Joanna Smith and Helena Sims of The Nature Conservancy.

The data and Coral Connectivity app will guide the design and management of Marine Protected Areas and direct restoration activities, reflecting a comprehensive strategy for reef conservation at both national and regional levels.

Coral superhighway prompts a global call to action

In summary, this research underscores the critical interconnectedness of Seychelles’ coral reefs, revealing a “coral superhighway” that highlights the potential for reef resilience and recovery in the face of climate change.

By combining cutting-edge genetic analysis with sophisticated oceanographic modeling, scientists offer conservationists and policymakers valuable tools to prioritize and protect vital larval sources.

This study advances our understanding of coral ecosystem dynamics and urges sustained, global efforts towards reef conservation.

The research team emphasizes the need for targeted actions at both local and national levels to mitigate the impacts of environmental threats and safeguard these underwater treasures for future generations.

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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