Coral reefs are integral to life on Earth. They are nursery grounds for ¼ of all marine life, protect our cities and homes from storms, feed more than 14% of the human population and contribute billions of dollars to the global economy. Most importantly, they support the natural marine processes that produce a large proportion of all the oxygen on our planet. Yet, these critical ecosystems around the world are dying as climate change warms and acidifies the ocean.
At our marine laboratory in Hawaii, we research coral reproduction and biology to help these essential ocean ecosystems survive. As part of our work, we are creating frozen biorepositories of coral, fish, sea urchins, and the symbiotic algae that live within coral tissues. The biorepositories are similar to seed banks for plants, in that the frozen coral reef material can be stored safely for many years until needed. In the future, frozen coral sperm from the biorepository can be thawed and introduced to fresh coral eggs, adding new genes to corals populations. Frozen coral larvae could potentially help restore reefs to their former richness.
Reefs provide food, shelter and nursery grounds for marine life, but they also support the chemical pathways that help marine algae produce oxygen for all life on Earth. Our biorepositories will help secure the health and genetic diversity of coral reefs for the future, in turn helping the other animals that rely on reefs, like fish, mollusks, sea turtles — and even seabirds searching for meals.
Seabirds are arguably the most connected animals on the planet. They connect land to sea, the deep ocean to the coast, and the polar regions to the tropics. One species we study, the Arctic tern, makes the longest migration in the world. Arctic terns journey from the Arctic Ocean to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, and some have been recorded traveling more than 80,000 kilometers (more than 49,700 miles) annually. Other seabirds called jaegers are acrobatic wonders and voracious predators. After nesting in the Arctic region of North America, these dipping and diving birds visit the coral reefs of Micronesia and the Caribbean; the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a deep rift valley that is part of the largest underwater mountain range in the world; and the boundary currents off the coast of Africa, where deep, productive water wells up to the ocean’s surface.