Counting Corals

Jordan Penn, Millersville University

The Approach: In my last post, I discussed that the consequences of habitat-degrading practices (e.g., bottom trawling, dumping of waste, drilling) include the loss of species such as gorgonian corals, which provide structural habitat for other species.

My research seeks to understand the relationship between soft corals and their geological substrate. In other words, our lab want to understand whether or not soft corals are more likely to be present on rocky or sandy sea floors. We are also looking for relationships between the abundance of soft corals at different depths. We are investigating these relationships in order to gain some understanding of where soft corals are most likely to be found. 

Example of a transect with three segments. Image credit: Science X.

In order to assess these potential relationships, first we need to divide the video footage of dives from the ROV (remotely-operated vehicle) Beagle into 15-minute transects containing 3 5-minute segments. We take this step in order to determine the density (number of individuals per square meter of area) of corals at each site as accurately as possible.

Next, I will analyze the video footage, counting each Leptogorgia, Acanthogorgia, Eugorgia, Adelogorgia, and sea pen (these are good model organisms because they are conspicuous in our study site). Along with the number of corals, I will denote the type of substrate that was dominant throughout the 5-minute segment (e.g., rocky bottom, sandy bottom, mixed/coarse bottom).

Finally, I will be able to run statistical analyses on these data to determine average density, the average deviation from the determined average density, and potential drivers of diversity at each site (e.g., does depth/bottom type/something else affect how many corals are present in an area?).

Thank you to the members of the Etnoyer Lab for their guidance and assistance as well as the Grice Lab and College of Charleston for funding this project. This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.


NOAA. (2012, April 17). NOAA releases new views of Earth’s ocean floor. Retrieved June 17, 2019, from NOAA

Calling All Corals

Jordan Penn, Millersville University

The Problem: On average, light cannot penetrate ocean waters beyond a depth of 200m. This region of the world ocean is commonly named the “deep sea.” These depths are characterized by enormous pressure and frigid temperatures. However, the deep sea has become an area of increasing interest as we have come to learn about the unique habitat it provides as well as the abundance and diversity of species it supports. Researchers estimate that the deep sea may be home to as many as 100 million species, most of which are still unrecorded.

Adelogorgia phyllosclera, one of my five corals of interest. Image credit: NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Advanced Survey Technologies Group

Although corals are most commonly known to be found in shallow tropical waters, many exist in the deep sea. Because of the lack of photosynthesis in the deep sea, survival of the corals in the deep is dependent upon “marine snow,” the rain of phytoplankton and other organic material from the ocean’s surface to the sea floor. Dense clusters of corals are termed “coral gardens,” and these gardens provide refuge for many bottom-dwelling species.

Cold water corals are vulnerable to habitat destruction by human influence because their locations are generally undocumented. We’re working to identify and protect these slow-growing aggregations of coral and the communities that they support!

ROV Beagle, remotely-operated vehicle used to collect samples in the Channel Islands, CA. Image credit: MARE Group.

Offshore drilling, commercial bottom trawling (a form of fishing that severely degrades bottom habitats), and dumping of waste are the greatest threats to deep sea corals and the species that take advantage of the habitat that they provide. The deep sea has become a popular fishery and drilling prospect, so it has become increasingly important to protect these habitats so that any profitable resources there may be harvested sustainably. My project this summer focuses on sea pens as well as an order of cold water corals called gorgonians in the Channel Islands, CA. I will be analyzing video data from an ROV (remotely-operate vehicle) in order to record the locations and quantify the abundance of my study organisms. The results of this research should provide the scientific community and commercial managers with information on how to protect these vulnerable habitats.

Thank you to the members of the Etnoyer Lab for their guidance and assistance as well as the Grice Lab and College of Charleston for funding this project. This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.


Marine Applied Research and Exploration. (n.d.). ROV Beagle. Retrieved June 17, 2019, from

NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Advanced Survey Technologies Group. (2015, June 10). Southern California Bight. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from

The real beauty of coral reefs

Nina Sarmiento, Binghamton University

The beauty of a coral reef is undeniable. Over four thousand species of fish, 800 species of coral, invertebrates, and large macro fauna coming together in one place is sure to create a thrilling visual experience. You might be surprised to learn that these remarkable places filled with twenty five percent of marine life, constitute less than one percent of the ocean floor.1 But you don’t have to be lucky enough to travel to a coral reef to fully appreciate its beauty. The real value of reefs comes from their unsuspecting roles in sustaining life as we know it.

photo cred:

photo cred:

Fish from approximately half of our global fisheries, at one point spent a part of their life in coral reefs.2 The unique habitat hard corals provide is perfect for spawning and juvenile life for many species, which may later end up in other parts of the ocean. Fishermen make their livelihood from these reefs, harvesting an average of fifteen tons of seafood annually per square kilometer.3

As for people living on our tropical coastlines, reefs play a crucial role in protecting life on land. It is in the beauty of the long braches of Copra palmata, among other corals, that dangerous storms and waves are softened. Corals roughness and their shallow locale dissipate wave energy, and we have a natural barrier that safeguards our homes.4

Acropora palmata – “Elkhorn coral” Photo cred:

Acropora palmata – “Elkhorn coral”
Photo cred:

The importance and intrigue of coral reefs has led to studying many of the organisms and interactions there, leading to new understandings of many aspects of organism biology and evolution. Additionally research has uncovered new medicine from extracting compounds unique species have, giving reefs an importance in future medical interests.

The paradox is that, of all the reasons why we appreciate coral reefs, it is we, the human species that are not having a good effect on them. In fact we are seeing reef decline in many parts of the world because of our actions.5

This summer I am delving into studying one of the possible reasons for this decline; a chemical threat to coral that may not be obvious at first, but could have significant implications on their ability to survive and reproduce.

Stay tuned to hear about my project and the amazing opportunity I have to be a part of the effort to preserve these beautiful communities.


1 Spalding MD, Ravilious C, Green EP. 2001. United Nations Environment Programme, World Conservation Monitoring Centre. World Atlas of Coral Reefs. University California Press: Berkley. 416.

2 US Coral Reef Task force. 2000. The National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs. Washington DC: US Environmental Protection Agency. 34.

3 Ceasr H. 1996. Economic Analysis of Indonesian Coral Reefs. Washington DC: The World Bank.

4 Lowe JR, Falter JL, Bandet MD, Pawlak G, Atkinson MJ, Momismith SG, Koseff JR. 2005. Spectral wave dissipation over a barrier reef. Journal of Geophysical research. 10: C04001.

5 Nystrom M, Folke C, Moberg F. 2015. Coral reef disturbance and resilience in a human-dominated environment.

Funding for my research comes from the National Science Foundation in partner with The College of Charleston and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration