project news

Coral Whisperers

News item submitted by Tabitha Jones
News item dated 7 Mar 2011


The global decline of coral reefs, which are increasingly under threat from pollution and climate change, are well publicised. Yet, despite a generally negative outlook there does appear to be hope for future research and conservation efforts, and this hope comes in the unlikely form of so called 'Coral whisperers', as was reported in a recent New Scientist article by Sonia Van Gilder Cooke. 

Now it is to be expected that most are probably more familiar with the term 'Horse whisperer', from the novel and film by the same name, but I would hope that in the near future, Coral whisperer will be a term as equally encountered and revered.

The term has been used to refer to a team of scientists who initiated a pioneering project that translated the signals that corals released when subjected to a stress, such as pollutants.

The team observed that exposure to a toxic substance invoked a change in the cellular physiological condition of the exposed coral (Downs et al., 2006). Furthermore, exposure has been shown to trigger the activation of certain genes which in turn amplify the production of anti-oxidant enzymes and stress proteins. Imperatively, this process appears to be relatively toxin specific and therefore, by assaying for the presence of different sets of enzymes, researchers can diagnose a specific source of stress.

So, why all the fuss? Well the implications of this research are far reaching, and this was particularly evident during a landmark legal case between the inhabitants of the tiny island of Yap, in the Federal States of Micronesia, and the owners of the merchant vessel Kyowa Violet. In 2002, the Kyowa Violet ran aground on a coral reef off the coast of the island and released and estimated 200,000 litres of crude oil into the lagoon, affecting miles of coastline, coral reefs, and mangroves.

The team analysed both visibly oiled and non-oiled coral samples and reported that they exhibited widespread production of proteins that were a specific hallmark of oil exposure, and these findings helped secure a legal victory for the islanders in 2006.

Most significantly, this case proved the potential for the work of the coral whisperers to hold future perpetrators accountable for the damage of coral reefs, and once again the project has come back into the spotlight due to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Findings from a recent NOAA expedition in the Gulf of Mexico reported evidence of widespread coral death, but investigators have yet, despite the circumstantial evidence, to conclusively link this to the oil spill. Furthermore, logistical constraints and the sheer vast area potentially impacted by the oil may mean that the full extent of damage to the sea depths may never fully be assessed.

The scientific and conservation community is a buzz with impending studies to utilise the coral whisperer’s concepts and allow investigators to conclusively link the coral reef death to the oil spill. Once again they will no doubt play a significant role in assessing the extent of future damages that BP may have to award to recompense for the coral reef damage. It would seem that thanks Craig Downs and his team, for BP it may no longer be a case of out of sight, out of mind.

Get involved with the fight to save the worlds corals on our Fiji project.