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Caribbean coral reef decline began in 1950s and '60s from human activities

April 22, 2020

Not long ago, the azure waters of the Caribbean contained healthy and pristine coral reef environments dominated by the reef-building corals that provide home to one-third of the biodiversity in the region.

But the Caribbean reefs of today pale in comparison to those that existed even just a generation ago. Since researchers began intensively studying these reefs in the 1970s, about one half of Caribbean corals have died. The iconic elkhorn and staghorn corals that once dominated Caribbean reefs have been hardest hit, with only 20% of their populations remaining today.

Although researchers believe climate change, fishing and pollution are to blame, the lack of baseline data prior to the 1970s has made it hard to determine the precise reasons for these coral die-offs. Arizona State University researcher Katie Cramer wanted to document when corals first began dying to better understand the root causes of coral loss. 

Now, in a new paper in Science Advances, Cramer has combined fossil data, historical records and underwater survey data to reconstruct the abundance of staghorn and elkhorn corals over the past 125,000 years. She finds that these corals first began declining in the 1950s and '60s, earlier than previously thought. This timing is decades before climate change impacts, indicating that local human impacts like fishing and land-clearing set the stage for the widespread coral declines that are now accelerating in response to warming oceans.

"I am interested in going back to the scene of the crime when humans first began to significantly impact coral reefs centuries ago, to understand when, why and how much reefs have been altered by humans,” said Cramer, an assistant research professor at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and an Ocean Science Fellow at the Center for Oceans at Conservation International.

The earlier, local roots of declines of elkhorn and staghorn corals in the 1950s and '60s highlight the urgency of mitigating local human impacts on reefs to allow these corals to recover. “In an era where coral reefs are being hit with multiple human stressors at the same time, we need to resolve why and how much coral reefs have changed over human history to inform our responses to the current reef crisis," said Cramer.

“Recent studies are showing that reefs are better able to cope with climate change impacts when they are not also stressed from overfishing and land-based runoff. So let’s get a handle on these tractable problems now to give reefs a better chance of weathering the current climate crisis."

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Grad students stay connected while social distancing via online gaming platform

ASU School of Life Sciences graduate students create online space for gaming, connections

April 22, 2020

Creating a community for graduate students to come together and support one another was already a focus in the School of Life Sciences. And then social distancing became a mandate, leaving students like Romain Dahan and Kimberly Olney to rethink how that support is facilitated.

“Before, when campus was open, we'd get together and work on a puzzle together or something along those lines, just as a space for graduate students to unwind and talk about life and do something creative,” said Olney, a fourth-year evolutionary biology PhD student and president of the School of Life Sciences’ graduate student executive board. “Now that we're all having to practice social distancing, we still recognize how important it is for us to stay connected and to talk about life and to do something that isn't just always work- or research-focused or reading the news.” Screenshot from gaming event Graduate students in the School of Life Sciences have created an online space for gaming and connections. Download Full Image

Enter a Discord serverDiscord is a digital distribution platform designed for video gaming communities that specializes in text, image, video and audio communication between users in a chat channel. called "The Fellowship of Glitch."

“The basic idea was really to try and create this online community where we could feel a sense of belonging and still get together and be grad students,” said Dahan, a sixth-year evolutionary biology PhD student and vice president of the executive board.

Since its launch, the Fellowship of Glitch has been a place for students to talk and share recommendations — like using a zombie running app to stay motivated to jog — with one another, play games and even meet new connections.

“I'm chatting with people I've actually never even met within (the School of Life Sciences) before because (it) is huge,” Olney said. “This is something that I see going on even when campus does open back up again; it’s a great way to just stay connected and virtually meet new people.”

While created for School of Life Sciences graduate students initially, Olney and Dahan welcome any graduate students from The College or Arizona State University who are seeking a community to join. In addition to the server, the executive board is also facilitating online gaming opportunities, including Jackbox, Geoguesser and the Tabletop Simulator.

“It is great to see the (School of Life Sciences) graduate students rising to the challenge of connecting during this physical distancing period, through online gaming communities,” said Kenro Kusumi, director of the School of Life Sciences. “The teams that they have created through online communities reflect the spirit of innovation that also drives their scientific research.”

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences