UNCW Group Receives NSF Grant for Coral Reef Research

Friday, February 19, 2016

A team of UNCW researchers has received funding from the National Science Foundation for their ongoing study of Caribbean coral reefs.

Christopher Finelli, Patrick Erwin, Joe Pawlik and Steve McMurray from the UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology, were awarded a total of $818,016 for the project, “Testing the sponge-loop hypothesis for Caribbean coral reefs.”     

Finelli, a professor and chair of the department, specializes in hydrodynamics and invertebrate feeding. Erwin is an assistant professor with an expertise in microbiology of sponge symbiosis. Professor Pawlik specializes in sponge ecology. McMurray earned his Ph.D. in marine biology from UNCW last summer and has an expertise in sponge ecology and feeding.

Sponges are bottom-dwelling animals that dominate Caribbean reefs now that reef-building corals are steadily declining. Sponges feed by filtering large quantities of seawater, thus providing a mechanism for recycling organic material back to the reef.

A proposed new theory, the “sponge-loop hypothesis,” seeks to explain Darwin’s Paradox: how do highly productive and diverse coral reefs grow in desert-like tropical seas? The sponge-loop hypothesis suggests that sponges on coral reefs absorb the large quantities of dissolved organic carbon (molecules such as carbohydrates) that are released by seaweeds and corals and return it to the reef as particles in the form of living and dead cells or other cellular debris.

Through 2019, the team of UNCW researchers will use a rigorous set of techniques to test the sponge-loop hypothesis on 10 of the largest and most common sponges on Caribbean reefs. Additionally, they will examine the relationship between the large numbers of microorganisms that live in many sponge species and the ability of the whole sponge to absorb dissolved organic carbon.

“This project will provide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and training for postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate students and public outreach in the form of easily accessible educational videos,” said Pawlik. “Furthermore, this project is important for understanding the carbon cycle on coral reefs where the effects of climate change and ocean acidification may be tipping the competitive balance toward non-reef-building organisms, such as sponges.”

-- Caroline Cropp