Changes in reef latitude

Since the 1980s, researchers have hypothesized that nutrient levels rather than temperature are the main factor controlling the latitudinal bounds of coral reefs, but the issue remains controversial. New results from an extensive survey of reefs in South Florida by a Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution research team strongly support this hypothesis. The research suggests that, by supporting blooms of harmful seaweed, increasing nutrient pollution levels are reducing the areas where reef-building coral can survive, a result the team believes it is directly observing in Florida waters.

On Mon., Feb. 20, Brian Lapointe, a marine ecologist at Harbor Branch who leads the survey program, will present data from the research for the first time publicly at a 10:30 a.m. Hawaii Std. Time (3:30 p.m. EST) scientific session of the 2006 Ocean Sciences meeting in Honolulu (http://www.agu.org/meetings/os06/) . He will also discuss the results at an 11:00 a.m. Hawaii Std. Time (4:00 p.m. EST) press conference on Wed., Feb. 22.

Temperature is a key determinant of the extent of shallow water reefs. Nonetheless, some waters that are warm enough for reef building corals do not have them. In Florida, for instance, reef-building coral s are for the most part not found north of Palm Beach County, about a third of the way up the coast. This boundary appears to have been similar throughout the state's geological history, yet corals thrive in Bermuda, well north of there where temperatures are cooler.

One idea is that, both historically and now, this Florida coral cut-off has been determined by nutrient levels. Corals' need for oligotrophic, or nutrient poor, water is well known, but the relative importance of temperature and nutrients in defining coral range can be difficult to discern. Lapointe believes, based on more than 20 years of research at reefs in Florida and the Caribbean, that levels of the nutrient ph

Contact: Mark Schrope
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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