Coral Reef Research Unit

Research Areas

The Coral Reef Research Unit has a strong track record in photophysiological research that aims to investigate biological processes at cellular and organismic levels. These studies most often address the health of corals under anthropogenic environmental change from increasing CO2, pollution or temperature.

Our recent research advances stem from novel areas of research within CRRU:

  • We investigate growth processes in coral with innovative instrumentation and in-house expertise provided by researchers from our Bioimaging Facility.
  • We quantify the flux of climate-active trace gases including dimethyl sulfide (DMS) and isoprene from coral, anemones and their algal symbionts to improve our understanding of the ecology and physiology of trace gas production in tropical ecosystems.
  • We increasingly utilise molecular genetic tools to understand changes to the microbial diversity in coral and anemone symbiotic holobionts.

Research areas

Corals and environmental change

Coral reefs are threatened by environmental change. Research within the CRRU focuses on the coral responses to specific factors such as acute thermal anomalies (eg ENSO events) or chronic ocean acidification but also examines how coral species and systems may respond to multiple impacts. Research takes place in the laboratory and in the field across all of our sites.

Understanding how species respond to multi-stressors is key to predicting likely responses of ecosystems to future change and to identify management options for direct mitigation and reef protection.

The coral holobiome

A coral consists of many different components that can be divided in to the coral host, phototrophic symbionts (zooxanthellae) and the coral microbiome. These three components largely dictate the ecological success of the holobiont in the field. However the role the different components play, and in particular the interaction between components and the environment, is still unclear.

Research within our laboratory and research sites aims to unpick the role of different components of the holobiont whilst also determining the flexibility of these component parts across environmental gradients. Research includes detailed field investigations, physiological characterisation and utilises an omics approach throughout.

Coral life at the margins and extremes

Our understanding of the environmental window corals exist within has changed dramatically recently as researchers have described corals existing under a range of conditions.

Research within our laboratory and field sites is focused on understanding the fundamental as well as realised niche of a coral holobiont and ask the question of how corals can survive in relatively extreme environments. Ultimately understanding the true breadth of a corals niche today, and how this varies between species will help inform us of the types of conditions coral may exist in within the future.

Rapid environmental surveys and impact mitigation

The CRRU has undertaken numerous rapid environmental assessments of reefs around the world capitalising on their expertise in taxonomy, environmental characterisation and environmental forensics.

The CRRU acts independently to fully describe the biodiversity, ecology and ecosystem service provision whilst also describing the potential impact of development or other forms of anthropogenically-driven environmental change.

Reef ecology

Despite vast amount of research investigation the biology and ecology of tropical reef systems many questions remain unanswered concerning the ecology of many taxonomic groups.

The CRRU takes advantage of its numerous research sites to explore ecological relationships, patterns in biodiversity, species distributions and spatial ecology to gain a better understanding of the functional biology of reef systems across bioregions. Such knowledge is extremely important and needs to underpin future conservation and management policies.

Coral physiology and cellular organisation: bioimaging

Within the School of Biological Sciences the CRRU can capitalise on extremely sophisticated bio-imaging facilities that are used within the biomedical research arena. This equipment allows us to examine the growth physiology, tissue organisation and stress physiology of different species of coral that we are able to sustainably keep and grow within the CRRU aquarium facilities.

New Bio-imaging tools have been applied and the CRRU are now describing fine-scale growth characteristics; organisation of symbionts and the reproduction, larval development, settlement and growth development of corals. Information gleaned from detailed bio-imaging informs other research areas.

Socio-ecological resilience

The trans-disciplinary research team is able to drawn upon expertise in biology, sociology, anthropology and governance to examine the implications of coral reef degradation on the welfare and livelihoods of dependent communities.

Research takes place across our research sites and results are embedded in a resilience framework to identify ways in which dependent communities can increase food and economic security.

Citizen science

Through the numerous partnerships and field operations the CRRU are in a unique position to evaluate the role of Citizen Science in conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

The aim of the research is to identify direct and indirect value of citizen participation and to determine best practises to increase research and conservation value as well as to increases environmental awareness and sustainable living of a wider section of society.