Cracking the Coral Code

Marine biologist Andrew Baker inspects coral at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Photo by Nick Swyter.

A University of Miami marine biologist will travel to Cuba this summer to learn whether corals from the island can help the Florida Keys adapt to warmer waters brought by climate change.

As part of an investigation of corals around the Caribbean, Andrew Baker of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science will participate in a research expedition to collect and research samples in Western Cuba’s Guanahacabibes region. The research is important because some Cuban waters are about two degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the Keys. “Corals in Florida are going to need to be able to adapt or acclimatize by about this amount over the course of this century,” Baker said. “So corals from Cuba may be able to help Florida’s corals achieve this.”

Cuba’s corals are also potentially important to South Florida reefs because, although they may be more heat tolerant, Cuba’s corals still have genetic similarities to those in Florida. Baker wants to use DNA samples of the corals in Guanahacabibes to investigate genetic links and find out whether these corals are sending their larvae downstream to the Florida Keys. Showing that these systems are already connected would reduce the potential risk of introducing other non-native organisms into the Keys coastal ecosystem. “The goal is to accelerate the pace at which Cuba’s corals might help Florida’s reefs respond to climate change. To do this, it’s best to use our next door neighbors, not different coral species from faraway locations like the Red Sea or Australia,” Baker said.

Once scientists learn more about Cuban corals and how resistant they are to the effects of climate change, it might then be possible to investigate the risks and benefits of cross-breeding Cuban and Floridian corals, and assess whether introducing Cuban corals to Florida’s reefs might help these ecosystems survive. “There is a need to accelerate the natural connectivity between these ecosystems, because they are fast running out of time as the oceans continue to warm,” Baker said.

The research comes at a time of urgency for the Florida Keys. Last year, Baker’s colleagues at UM found that ocean acidification will likely accelerate the predicted deterioration of the Keys’ reefs. That’s bad news for the local economy, because UM estimates the region’s reefs to generate $7.6 billion annually from the tourist and seafood industries. Depleted coral also makes Florida more vulnerable to hurricanes, since reefs protect some coastlines from storm surges.

While normalized U.S.-Cuba relations have helped advance scientific exchanges, Baker admits his Cuban expedition has not been easy to arrange. Original plans were set for last December, but were pushed back to summer. “It takes time to build relationships that will last, and governments don’t always work as fast as individuals do,” he said.

Despite the delays, Baker is optimistic about the future of mutually-beneficial scientific exchanges with Cuba. He says American scientists will benefit from the long-term experience of their Cuban counterparts—and will also be able to study Cuba’s relatively healthy reefs. In exchange, American scientists can help Cuban scientists use new tools such as modeling and genomics to better understand how their reefs are connected.

However, to really advance cooperative marine biology research between the two countries, Baker says Cuban marine biology students should complete their PhDs at UM. That would allow Cubans to learn new methods and technologies, “that way they can take the lead in applying them to understanding and protecting their reefs and be vested in the management of these valuable marine resources.”

Baker and marine biologist Fernando Bretos will discuss their research during a presentation entitled, “Coral Reefs and Science Diplomacy: Bridging the Gap with Cuba,” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at Miami’s Frost Science Museum.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more accurately describe the scope and timeline of the scientific expedition.

Nick Swyter, Cuba Trade

May 17, 2017


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