A CONSTANT BATTLE

Sea urchins help corals fight for space

Graduate Student: Stella Swanson

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It is the corals on a coral reef that make it such a beautiful place. Without corals, all the beautiful and brightly colored animals that live there would have nowhere to hide. Corals and seaweed are always at odds, competing for space to grow and light for photosynthesis. Seaweed generally, grow much faster than corals and, if left alone, can overtake a beautiful coral reef and turn it into an underwater forest. Herbivores, like some fish and sea urchins, like to eat seaweed, and therefore help corals by giving them a chance to grow and thrive.

Certain species of sea urchins are important for maintaining coral reefs, but it is not clear if all sea urchins eat enough seaweed to do this. There are four main species of sea urchins that live on the coral reefs in Moorea and Stella Swanson wants to find out which of these species helps corals to survive. She will test her hypothesis that one sea urchin is the best at controlling seaweed growth by manipulating what type of sea urchin is present on a coral and watching to see if the seaweed or coral grows best. If Stella's predictions are correct, certain species of sea urchin will eat enough seaweed to allow the coral's survival, but others will not eat enough to stop the seaweed from taking over.

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