National Science Foundation Funds $1.1 Million Grant

Studying coral reefs and how we can help protect and save these maritime wonders is something to which Nicole Fogarty, Ph.D., has dedicated her life. As a researcher at Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, Fogarty and her collaborators at Penn State University have received nearly $1.1 million via a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

The team will study why hybrid corals are thriving when their parental species remain threatened. Research has shown that the once dominant staghorn and elkhorn corals have declined more than 90 percent since the 1980s, primarily from disease. Reef-building acroporid corals are the foundation of shallow, tropical coral communities throughout the Caribbean.

“This continued decline jeopardizes the ability of coral reefs to provide the many societal and ecological benefits, including revenue from seafood harvesting and tourism, as well as shoreline protection from extreme wave events caused by storms and hurricanes,” Fogarty said.

According to Fogarty, despite legislative efforts to protect staghorn and elkhorn corals, threats to their survival remain pervasive. But what she has found is that hybridization among these closely related species is increasing and may provide a way for adaptation to the changing environment— which could be a factor in why the parental species is still struggling. Some evidence suggests that the hybrid species is more disease resistant than the parental species – which shows potential for rescuing the threatened corals when hybrids mate with the parental species.

Fogarty will be working with Drs. Iliana Baums and Webb Miller from Penn State University to collect genetic and ecological data to better understand the mechanisms that are contributing to the increased numbers of hybrids in some Caribbean locations. The goal is that the results from this study can help create a more strategic management of coral populations under current and emerging threats to their survival.

Click here to see an episode of PBS’s series Changing Seas on the topic of coral hybridization.

This project is fully funded by grant number 1538469 from the National Science Foundation.