Coral Reef Bleaching: Investigating the effects of thermal stress on coral

In September 2016, a team of Northwestern Engineering undergraduate students crowdsourced funding for a Coral Reefs Challenge Grant. The team sought its own funding to identify coral’s skeletal morphological characteristics at larger scales and learn how that architecture may or may not increase the risk of bleaching. Now, just over a year later, the experiment has concluded and the funding has come to fruition with the publication in Marine Ecology.

The experiment evaluated 88 diverse coral species to examine the disparity in stress responses among coral polyps. In doing so, they overturned a widely accepted axiom and reoriented our understanding of the response to thermal stress and its relation to other types of stressors. The most interesting aspect of this research is that it overturns a long-standing and widely-accepted idea. For 15 years, scientists have believe that well integrated coral colonies were more susceptible to thermal stress. This research demonstrates the opposite pattern, which was discovered after digging into the available data and applying modern phylogenetic comparative methods to uncover patterns among many species.

The publication of “Physiological Integration of Coral Colonies is Correlated with Bleaching Resistance” is significant not only in its remarkable scientific discoveries, but also in its authors. Phillip Osborn is an environmental engineering undergraduate senior. It is altogether too rare for undergraduate students to be a co-author in an article published in so prestigious a magazine. The experiment was spearheaded by Prof. Marcelino, an environmental engineering lecturer and research professor, and was led by Timothy Swain, her research associate.