The newly formed Reef Ecology and Evolution Laboratory (REEL) at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute is focused on understanding how ecosystems function in order maintain biodiversity. Using a combination of large-scale in situ ecological surveys, small-scale laboratory experiments, and molecular ecology, we examine population structure, reproductive ecology, and genetic connectivity on tropical coral reef ecosystems, ranging from shallow inshore reefs to the mesophotic zone. Upcoming projects range from understanding molecular and physiological mechanisms of adaptation by corals to extreme environments, to enhancing reef complexity using out-planting techniques to restore key ecosystem functions. Both theoretical and applied, the research conducted by the REEL group will advance our understanding of how coral reefs and all of the organisms that reside there will not only survive, but thrive, under future environmental conditions.

  1. Assessing the mechanisms of molecular and morphological adaptation by corals to extreme environments, funded by the National Science Foundation.

This collaborative study between CCMI and the University of Haifa, Israel, addresses two primary research questions: (1) how does coral morphology and physiology differ across depth and (2) are these differences due to plasticity or evolutionary adaptation? Using a multifaceted approach, including advanced molecular and imaging techniques, we will examine the mechanisms that enable corals to thrive across broad depth gradients in the Caribbean and the Red Sea.

  1. Enhancing Ecosystem Complexity to Promote Sustainable Fish Communities, funded by the Alexandria Foundation

As habitat complexity degrades, it is important to find means of intervention that can re-create the three-dimensional structure of coral reefs in order to sustain fish populations. This project seeks to understand the impacts of coral restoration out-planting, used as a mechanism to increase reef complexity, on the abundance and diversity of fish populations all the way up the food chain. Ultimately, results of this work could help determine if we can re-create complex reef systems that promote sustainable populations of commercially important fish species. Importantly, if successful this could be used as a mechanism to restore sites where commercially important fish stocks have declined.

  1. Variations in Nursery Coral Out-Planting Success on Raised 3-Dimensional Domes Across a Depth Gradient, funded by the AALL Foundation

The success of coral out-planting from nurseries in the Caribbean has varied widely. Previous work at CCMI has shown that fragments of staghorn corals from our nurseries have a higher survival rate when elevated off the benthos onto three-dimensional structures. This study seeks to further our understanding of out-plant success by examining how the depth of the out-planting site impact growth and survival on these three-dimensional structures. The information gained from this project will be use to scale-up our out-planting and restoration strategies and can inform regional and international restoration efforts. Learn more about this project and CCMI’s coral restoration work HERE.

  1. Increasing Coral Reef Resilience with Assisted Evolution via Selective Restoration, this project is funded by the European Union

Restoration activities at CCMI have documented differences in the response of individuals to disease outbreaks and heat stress events, either through genetics or plasticity. Through our understanding of disease resistance and heat tolerance we will assist the evolution of the Acroporid populations by selecting for the most tolerant individuals that will then be used to restore nearshore coral reef sites, creating reefs with higher tolerance to the main threats affecting corals. This project, therefore, will promote local reef resilience and sustain biodiversity and ensure the persistence of reefs into the foreseeable future in the Cayman Islands. Learn more about this project and CCMI’s coral restoration work HERE.

  1. Using patterns of fine-scale genetic connectivity to understand habitat use and inform management of invasive lionfish populations in the Cayman Islands, potential funding source DarwinPlus Initiative

We know lionfish are present along a broad depth gradient but how connected are these populations? Using a combination of in-situ surveys and molecular population genetic analysis we will determine the role of deep reefs as a refuge for lionfish populations and the degree of connectivity among depths. Understanding if these populations are connected will determine if culling in shallow habitat alone is effective at controlling populations or if culling of deeper sites needs to be incorporated.

  1. Scaling Observational Coral Reef Ecology from Cells to Sea-Scape, potential funding source US NSF

To accurately understand how an ecosystem functions and is maintained, multiple facets of scale need to be considered in combination. Recent advances in molecular techniques (eDNA), diving technologies (e.g., closed-circuit rebreathers, application of mixed gases, etc.), field robotics (e.g., Autonomous Underwater Vehicles -AUVs, Remotely Operated Vehicles, -ROVs), and survey techniques (e.g., sonar and benthic optical imagery) from surface vessels allow the full geographic extent of coral reef systems to be explored in an unprecedented way. This study, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Delaware, we will combine all of these tools and techniques in order to expand our characterizations of corals reefs across of broad range of scales. Exploring coral reef ecosystems at multiple interwoven levels using coordinated technologies and observations will drastically improve our understanding of the underlying processes and interactions driving local and global change and fill a critical knowledge gap.

Mission of REEL

Promote resilience of coral reefs ecosystems through increased understanding of adaptation and acclimatization potential of ecosystem engineers, protection of key ecosystem functions, and identification of areas of refuge.