For the CYCLE project, our lab has focused on evaluating genetic connectivity among three stony coral species (Montastraea cavernosa, Stephanocoenia intersepta, and Orbicella faveolata) and the giant barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta) within FGBNMS and across the Tropical Western Atlantic. The data and information generated by our efforts is important for understanding how these foundational species spread and repopulate banks within the Sanctuary. Our findings will be used to help develop effective management strategies that conserve the vital coral reef and fisheries resources in the now expanded FGBNMS. This study will also comprise a large portion of Ryan Eckert’s dissertation research and builds on previous efforts by our team (Sturm et al. in review, Studivan et al. 2018, Garavelli et al. 2018).
Over the course of 5 days at sea aboard the RV Manta, we collected 219 coral and sponge biopsy tissue samples from Geyer Bank, East Bank, and West Bank. DNA from these samples will be extracted, cleaned, amplified, tagged, and sequenced for detailed genetic connectivity analyses. In addition, as part of Erin Shilling’s dissertation research at Texas State University, 30 coral fragments were collected for analyses of immune system activity and future challenge experiments to determine if 3 coral species (M. cavernosa, Pseudodiploria strigosa, Porites astreoides) at FGBNMS are susceptible to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.
Our dive team included technical trimix closed-circuit rebreather (CCR) divers (Joshua Voss, Ryan Eckert, and Ashley Carreiro), air diluent CCR divers (Jake Emmert and Allison Klein), and open circuit nitrox divers (Gabby Pantoni, Haley Davis, Sydney Bell, and Erin Shilling). Malachy McCaffrey served as our dedicated sample processor and assisted in back deck operations. Our team safely completed 15 CCR dive rotations, including 9 with trimix to 160’-200’, and a total of 69 person dives.
For 5 of the grad students/early career researchers aboard, this was their first opportunity to participate in an extended offshore research-focused expedition. FAU Harbor Branch master’s student Gabby Pantoni remarked “I was surprised by such high coral cover at East and West banks. Experiencing these healthy and dynamic reefs reinforced the importance of creating marine sanctuaries and gives me hope for the future of coral reef conservation and research.” Three members of the team were inspired during the mission to advance their technical diving skills. “This cruise made me even more excited to complete my trimix training so that I’ll be able to experience the mesophotic reefs in the Flower Gardens first-hand” said PhD student Allison Klein.
As always, we owe special thanks to the crew of the RV Manta, to Jake Emmert at Moody Gardens for assisting us during the cruise and arranging diving gas delivery, and to Marissa Nuttall, Michelle Johnston, Kait Brogan, and G.P. Schmahl at FGBNMS for supporting and facilitating this research.
Visit our Flickr to check out highlights from the cruise!