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You are here: /main/research expeditions/September/October 2007/Team Zoox

Scientist interviews: Team Zooxanthellae

by Darla White

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In the words of Michael Stat and Xavier Pochon

Team Zooxanthellae

Michael Stat and Xavier Pochon are both Postdocs under Ruth Gates at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB).  They are ambitiously maximizing their limited time here in the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by collecting data and samples to answer four environmental questions with regard to coral symbionts known as zooxanthellae.  They are seeking to: 1) identify zooxanthellae populations in diseased and healthy Acropora sp. at French Frigate Shoals; 2) assess the general diversity of zooxanthellae in 13 species of coral; 3) look for free-living zooxanthellae in the surrounding water column; and 4) map spatial distributions of zooxanthellae species to analyze for correlations with sea surface temperature anomalies, within and between atolls.  The first two objectives are part of ongoing research and monitoring here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the latter two are new projects. 

The type of information they are collecting has direct management implications.  Specifically, zooxanthellae diversity mapped onto sea surface temperature anomalies illustrates how the ecosystem has adapted with climate change.  Temperature is directly linked with corals health; that is, high water temperature causes corals to bleach which can lead to mortality. Additionally, it has been shown that a particular symbiont is associated with diseased Acropora cytherea.  This research hopes to track the distribution of this symbiont and others in the water column, and identify which other coral species in the Monument harbor them. Furthermore, identifying free-living Symbiodinium and characterizing their potential as symbionts is a necessary first step in determining the environmental pool of symbionts that are available for initial colonization or re-colonization of corals after a disturbance. The ultimate question they are hoping to answer is: what is the likelihood of corals surviving with climate change? 

One of the greatest challenges to this research is accessibility; this is the most remote coral reef system in the world.  There are only 18 diving days in the field spread over three atolls, and this is their only cruise this year.  They will be able to look at a variety of questions from the samples they collect on this trip, making the most of these valuable samples and time.  The samples will be stored and taken back to HIMB for molecular analyses.  At this point in time almost nothing is known about the diversity of zooxanthellae in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument – there is so much work yet to be done!

Working from a research vessel such as the Hi‘ialakai, at sea for a month in such a remote region of the globe, gathering data to answer complicated and important questions to assess the health and biodiversity of the reefs within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is something only a handful of scientists get the opportunity to do.  I asked the scientists what they thought of the experience.  Michael remarked that this is really hard work, but in a beautiful environment – an amazing adventure and experience – and he is so happy to be here.  Xavier declared that this is his most incredible scientific experience yet – completely amazing – especially the logistics…the ship’s officers and crew work so hard to make everything happen.  That they do.  The missions are a success by in large due to the officers and crew of the Hi‘ialakai.  I know all of the scientists on board share this thinking.  And we all thank them.

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Coral bleaching

Galapagos shark

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