Artificial reef on Town Lake to model coral environments
By Scott Solomon/The Daily Texan
Photo: Lonnie Anderson
Mikhail Matz, a new faculty member in UT's integrative biology section, is building the artificial reef as part of his research on the evolution of coral communities. He hopes to use the facility to understand the rate at which corals can adapt to threats caused by environmental changes such as global warming. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring.
Coral environments have been changing over the last few years, Matz said.
"There is really too much heating up of the surface waters around the corals, and it caused several really severe bleachings and die-offs. A few reefs just totally and completely died off," Matz said.
Bleaching occurs when tiny algae that live inside the coral, which produce the food upon which the corals depend, leave in search of better conditions. The results can be disastrous. "Bleaching is basically a symptom of something real bad happening to the coral," Matz said. "It can be likened to a high fever in humans."
Coral bleaching has caused the death of at least one entire reef system. The Okinawa Reef, off the southern coast of Japan, was once the northernmost reef in the Pacific Ocean, but is now completely dead as a result of bleaching, Matz said.
Matz hopes to use the new artificial reef facility, which he calls an Inland Reef Simulator, or IReS for short, to determine whether corals can adapt to such environmental changes. By simulating the exact conditions of several existing reefs and modifying them to simulate the effects of global climate change, Matz will test whether other reefs will die like the Okinawa Reef or will be able to evolve quickly enough to develop a tolerance for the new conditions.
Constructing an ecosystem
Building a coral reef in Central Texas will not be easy, said Eric Borneman, an expert on artificial cultivation of coral and a consultant on the new facility. The most important factors, Borneman said, include water flow, the availability of dissolved minerals such as calcium and access to light.
Unlike most coral aquaria, which use artificial light sources, IReS will use natural sunlight in order to simulate real environmental conditions. This requires constructing a greenhouse large enough to house the entire reef. The temperature inside the greenhouse must be maintained between 76 degrees and 84 degrees Fahrenheit for the corals to survive, which will be not be trivial during hot Texas summers.
Inside the greenhouse, IReS will consist of a series of tanks linked to one another through a complex arrangement of tubes and pumps that keep the simulated seawater circulating. Two "mother tanks" will be placed at the center and will double as display tanks for educational and public outreach purposes. Connected to the mother tanks will be culture tanks, in which genetically identical coral will be cultivated. Experimental tanks will allow Matz to simulate changes in environmental conditions, such as increased water temperatures as predicted under global warming scenarios. In total, IReS will contain between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of seawater.
The facility will be constructed at UT's Brackenridge Field Lab. Located on Lake Austin Boulevard, down the street from Hula Hut, the lab is a little-known part of campus that is already home to a number of research facilities, including labs, classrooms, greenhouses, artificial wetlands and an aviary for housing birds. The lab is also home to something perhaps more valuable: some 2,758 described species of plants and animals.
Larry Gilbert, director of the lab and an integrative biology professor, said the approximately 82-acre site has been surveyed repeatedly throughout its 40-year tenure as a field lab. These inventories, as well as a history of field studies including the first to document the impact of imported red fire ants, make the field lab irreplaceable, Gilbert said.
In October, the University assembled a task force to determine just how valuable the lab, as well as other adjacent properties that are collectively known as the "Brackenridge tract," are as they currently exist or whether the valuable real estate should be sold to developers. Gilbert, however, is confident that the facility will persist long enough for IReS to be built.
"The real value of [the Brackenridge Field Lab] is what it would cost to replace what would be lost if you lost it," Gilbert said. "There are very few urban universities that have anything like it."
In addition to studying the effects of global warming on coral reefs, Matz, who is actively recruiting undergraduate and graduate students, is interested in the bright coloration of coral and other sea life. Through the use of molecular analyses of coral pigment genes, Matz has been able to recreate the evolution of the many colors that are found in today's corals.
"Coral reefs are one of the most diverse, colorful and pretty ecosystems which you can find on this planet"
"Coral reefs are one of the most diverse, colorful and pretty ecosystems which you can find on this planet," he said.
In addition to their aesthetic appeal, coral reefs also serve important functions, such as harboring many other forms of life. As such, they have become economically important as sites for fishing and tourism, Matz said. Coral reefs also protect the shoreline from the effects of tsunamis, he said.
Despite their beauty and importance, corals are threatened not only by global climate change but also by other causes. Caribbean reefs in particular have become threatened in recent years, Matz said, because of increasing water temperatures, hurricane damage and unexplained deaths and sickness of sea urchins, an important player in coral ecosystems. The result is a very poor diagnosis for a region that is home to some 70 species of coral, all of which are found nowhere else on earth.
"Coral scientists now think that there are no pristine reefs left in the Caribbean, period," Matz said. Matz hopes his research using the new facility will help determine whether corals are doomed to extinction or whether they stand a chance to adapt to the changing conditions. He certainly hopes for the latter.
"It's kind of strange and sad to see that this wonderful coral community is going away precisely at our time, when it was there for hundreds of thousands of years before," he said.