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How seaweed has been misleading scientists about reef health

Date:
May 4, 2023
Source:
University of British Columbia
Summary:
For decades, scientists have used the amount of seaweed at the ocean's surface as a proxy for the health of coral reefs below. However, a new global study of more than 1,200 marine locations over a 16-year period reveals that this approach has been misleading -- and may even have hidden signs of reef stress.
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For decades, scientists have looked to seaweed as an indicator of the health of coral reefs lying underneath.

But what if the seaweed was misleading them?

New UBC research reveals it was, and scientists need new ways to determine whether human activity is harming a particular reef.

"This is especially critical today, given that reefs globally are threatened by climate-driven stressors," said Dr. Sara Cannon, a postdoctoral fellow at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the study's lead author.

Local species behave differently

Seaweed belongs to a group of organisms called macroalgae. Macroalgae at the ocean's surface has long served as a proxy for reef health, because it is relatively quick and easy to measure. Since the 1970s, scientists have assumed that local human impacts increase macroalgae while simultaneously damaging underlying reefs.

However, the study just published in Global Change Biology looked at data from over 1,200 sites in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over a 16-year period and revealed that this approach is misleading and may even have hidden signs of reef stress.

For example, macroalgae coverage depends heavily on the species growing in a particular area. Sargassum is less likely to grow in water contaminated by agricultural runoff, but Halimeda will thrive. In both cases, a reef will suffer.

The global research team concluded that using macroalgae coverage as an indicator of local human impacts can actually obscure how much our actions are harming reefs, and cause scientists to misidentify the reefs most in need of intervention.


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Materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Sara E. Cannon, Simon D. Donner, Angela Liu, Pedro C. González Espinosa, Andrew H. Baird, Julia K. Baum, Andrew G. Bauman, Maria Beger, Cassandra E. Benkwitt, Matthew J. Birt, Yannick Chancerelle, Joshua E. Cinner, Nicole L. Crane, Vianney Denis, Martial Depczynski, Nur Fadli, Douglas Fenner, Christopher J. Fulton, Yimnang Golbuu, Nicholas A. J. Graham, James Guest, Hugo B. Harrison, Jean‐Paul A. Hobbs, Andrew S. Hoey, Thomas H. Holmes, Peter Houk, Fraser A. Januchowski‐Hartley, Jamaluddin Jompa, Chao‐Yang Kuo, Gino Valentino Limmon, Yuting V. Lin, Timothy R. McClanahan, Dominic Muenzel, Michelle J. Paddack, Serge Planes, Morgan S. Pratchett, Ben Radford, James Davis Reimer, Zoe T. Richards, Claire L. Ross, John Rulmal, Brigitte Sommer, Gareth J. Williams, Shaun K. Wilson. Macroalgae exhibit diverse responses to human disturbances on coral reefs. Global Change Biology, 2023; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.16694

Cite This Page:

University of British Columbia. "How seaweed has been misleading scientists about reef health." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 May 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/05/230504121006.htm>.
University of British Columbia. (2023, May 4). How seaweed has been misleading scientists about reef health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 20, 2024 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/05/230504121006.htm
University of British Columbia. "How seaweed has been misleading scientists about reef health." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/05/230504121006.htm (accessed February 20, 2024).

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