Research

New 'CISME' Technology Developed to Study Coral Health

MONDAY, MARCH 28, 2016

For the past six years, Dr. Alina Szmant, coral reef ecologist and former Professor of Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and her colleague, Dr. Rob Whitehead, a Research Specialist at the UNCW Center for Marine Science, have been developing a new instrument for diving scientists to measure coral health indicators. Szmant calls the instrument CISME, short for 'Coral In Situ MEtabolism.' The instrument is designed to measure coral metabolic rates wherever the coral lives without harming it. Szmant hopes CISME will open up a new chapter in coral physiological research.

CISME InstrumentBefore CISME, most measurements of coral metabolism involved breaking off pieces of coral and transporting them to a laboratory. "Metabolic rates such as respiration, photosynthesis, and calcification: we couldn't measure these important physiological rates in the field under natural conditions," Szmant said. "Most studies of coral health condition still are based on visual observation of their appearance which can be very subjective."

After being severed, coral fragments then had to heal their broken edges while scientists artificially recreated the environment in which corals had been living. CISME was developed to avoid this disturbance and provide a means of making these measurements within the animal's natural habitat without causing damage. The acronym is pronounced "kiss me" to reflect the instrument's gentle and harmless interaction with the coral. CISME is small and light-weight so that divers can carry it around and attach it onto sections of smooth coral. It only takes about 15 to 30 minutes to collect a complete set of coral metabolic rates.

According to Szmant, younger coral reef ecologists are working with very different coral reef ecosystems than the ones she did at the start of her career. "They are focused on saving the coral reefs," Szmant said. "It's important for these younger investigators to understand that they're studying a dying patient."

In the 1960s and 70s, healthy corals used to cover 50 to 80 percent of Caribbean coral reef substrate. Now, only 10 to 20 percent of reef floor is home to live corals. The rest have died, and for the larger, slow-growing massive species, will not grow back in our lifetime. Global warming is a huge part of this phenomenon, especially in the Caribbean. During global warming years, seawater temperatures rise to intolerable levels during the late summer, effectively 'cooking' the animals that build the coral reefs. "Coral reefs are formed over geological time scales, by accumulation of the skeletons of the corals and other reef-building algae and animals," explained Szmant. "If the reef-building organisms can no longer live there, as the corals die the reef structure will break down and wash away."

Development of CISME has been a long process, and the current instrument looks much different than the initial design. Szmant credits new technologies, like 3-D printing, and new inexpensive electronic components, for building subsequent versions. They are now taking advantage of inexpensive tablets in underwater housings to control CISME through Wi-Fi. This may be a first for a diving instrument.

Szmant and Whitehead recently took CISME to the 2016 Ocean Science Conference in New Orleans, where they showcased the instrument to other marine scientists. Their next step is to hold a workshop in May 2016 in Florida to teach other researchers how to use CISME. Szmant hopes this will create demand so she can find a company to commercialize the instrument and make it widely available to diving coral reef scientists.

-- Caitlin Taylor