I am a NERC funded DTP student in the Changing Oceans Research Group in the School of GeoSciences. My PhD project is entitled ‘The role of coralliths in coral reef recovery and expansion’. Coralliths are an overlooked group of corals that have a unique spheroidal or sub-spheroidal morphology. They form when a coral larvae settles on a mobile piece of coral rubble or via fragmentation of corallith forming species. This results in a mobile lifestyle, being moved passively by wave action or the grazing of corallivores. What differentiates them from corals that reproduce through fragmentation is their ability to remain free-living indefinitely rather than having to resettle. Therefore, coralliths regularly experience sub-optimal conditions including changes in light exposure, temperatures and mechanical stress. Understanding the driving forces that allow a handful of coral species, such as Porites lutea, to have this unusual lifestyle will provide knowledge of why some corals species are more resilient to climatic changes.
Observations made by my main supervisor on this project, Dr Sebastian Hennige, suggest that coralliths are able to recover more rapidly and expand their coverage post disturbance. He, along with my co-supervisors, have shown that coralliths are able to stabilise their own habitat allowing the expansion of the reef into areas normally uninhabitable by other coral species that rely on stable substrate for attachment. Understanding what habitats allow for coralliths to help stabilise the reef and expand coral coverage can inform management of reefs to accommodate for these coral oddities.
I will use a multidisciplinary approach to fill these knowledge gaps. I will use lab techniques to decipher whether tolerance of mechanical stress, acclimatory plasticity or a combination of the two allow for corallith formation. I will then use field surveys across different habitats where coralliths are found to examine their ecological role.
Watch this video to see a brief explanation of what coralliths are and how they are formed!
Other Professional and Academic Experience
Prior to my current studies I have had a varied academic career alongside substantial experience of working within the public Aquarium industry. I obtained a First Class (Hons) BSc in Zoology with Industrial Experience from the University of Manchester, part of which was spent being trained as an aquarist at The Horniman Museum and Gardens Aquarium. During my undergraduate degree I carried out several research projects looking at factors effecting the bacterial communities that colonise amphibian skin.
I continued with this research theme after my degree by obtaining funding from the People’s Trust For Endangered Species that allowed me to carry out a research project of my own design at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, London. For this I investigated the genotypic effect on the bacteria that colonise the skin of tadpoles and whether these communities are maintained through metamorphosis. I then worked at ZSL London Zoo as an aquarist, strengthening my coral husbandry skills before starting my MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Leeds. My MSc thesis looked at the heat shock and oxidative stress response of two scleractinian corals to prolonged thermal stress. I carried out this work at the New University of Lisbon in partnership with Lisbon Oceanarium. I was pleased to achieve a distinction for my masters.
Finally, I accepted the position of aquarist at Chester Zoo where I worked for two years before beginning my PhD in September 2018. My time at Chester Zoo built on my aquarium knowledge. Throughout my career so far I have developed a strong interest in the area of eco-physiology, particularly understanding how symbiotic relationships contribute to species resilience and thus shaping ecosystems post disturbance. My aquarium experience along with my academic achievements have put me in a strong position to carry out my current research and I hope to contribute to the growing body of work predicting the fate of coral reefs and working to protect them.