UH Hilo marine scientists investigate how shapes of corals shape life on reefs

In recently published research, mapping team finds that every curve and every angle of a coral colony sustains an array of marine species.

Sofia Ferreira underwater in dive suit and with camera in hand.
UH Hilo graduate student Sofia Ferreira collects coral reef data using photogrammerty techniques. She is lead author of a recently published study on predicting habitat complexity using a trait-based approach on coral reefs in Guam. (Jeff Kuwabara)

By Susan Enright.

A graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is lead author of a recently published study on predicting habitat complexity using a trait-based approach on coral reefs in Guam.

Sofia Ferreira pictured.
Sofia Ferreira (Courtesy photo)

Sofia Ferreira, who hails from Paraguay, earned a bachelor of science in marine science and certificate in data science from UH Hilo in 2022. She is now a graduate student in the university’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science program where she is focusing on coral reef ecology. Her master’s thesis is on creating three-dimensional models of Hawaiian coral reefs to investigate connections between reef habitats and local fish communities.

Ferreira is conducting her work with researchers at UH Hilo’s Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Laboratory, commonly called MEGA Lab, that specializes in the study of coral reefs.

“Underneath the shimmering waves, coral reefs flourish as underwater cities, carefully designed by nature’s architects, corals themselves,” says Ferreira. “Much like architects design unique houses for different people, corals create diverse habitats and refuge for the ocean’s inhabitants. This diversity within coral refuges is the foundation to the health and resilience of coral reef ecosystems.”

In the recently published research, Ferreira and team seek to determine how the design of each coral home shapes the “reef city.” Using high-tech underwater cameras, Ferreira and others from MEGA Lab mapped 208 coral reef sites surrounding the island of Guam. The team used three-dimensional (3D) photogrammetry techniques to survey the plots. From these reef maps, over 12,000 corals were individually assessed, capturing their size and growth shape. The innovative study found that every curve and every angle of a coral colony holds the key to sustaining an array of marine species.

Aerial maps showing study areas on coast of Guam. Caption: Figure 1. (a) Map of Guam island with study areas marked by a red box, (b) study sites (marked by yellow pins) located in the northwest and northeast coastlines, (c) study sites located in the west coast within and outside of Apra Harbor. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). ArcGIS Release 10.8. Redlands, CA. https://www. esri. com/ (2019).
Images of study’s mapping areas. (Courtesy photos)
Two close up photos of coral. Caption: Figure 2. (a) Example of 1-cm raster resolution 2D orthomosaic with a 2 × 2-m plot overlaid in ArcMap. (b) Example of individual coral colony observed within the plot.
Images of studied coral. (Courtesy photos)

“Our main conclusion is that the traits of coral colony size and morphology are strong predictors of habitat complexity in Guam’s reefs and should thus be included in coral reef monitoring programs,” write the authors of the study. “This study offers important insights and foundation for future studies assessing the impact of changing reef habitats on reef-associated organisms under climate change.”

Ferreira says coral reefs, the lifelines of coastal and island communities, are facing escalating threats from both local and global stressors. “[Our] findings offer a glimpse of hope, casting light on the inner workings of these vital ecosystems.”

She adds that integrating these coral traits into monitoring programs enables scientists to better predict the impacts of environmental changes on reef ecosystems and improve conservation strategies.

Ferreira, who identifies as an Indigenous non-traditional scientist, says a driving force behind her academic career is to prove that anyone can be a scientist and contribute to preserving the planet’s resources for the future. “Research keeps me curious and dedicated to making a positive impact, both in the scientific community and beyond,” she says.

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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