In Seychelles, a High-Tech Bid to Rescue Coral Reefs with Genetic Data

scuba diver examines a coral reef

Researchers trace the underwater superhighways weaving through Seychelles’ coral ecosystems. (Photo by NEOM on Unsplash)

by | May 24, 2024

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The Seychelles archipelago, comprised of 115 islands spread across the western Indian Ocean, is a region heavily reliant on its coral reefs for economic stability and food security. These intricate ecosystems, formed by colonies of invertebrate animals, support a vast array of marine species and the livelihoods of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states. The increasing frequency and severity of marine heatwaves pose a significant threat to these reefs, emphasizing the need for effective conservation strategies.

A recent study conducted in Seychelles highlights the potential of leveraging genetic connectivity among coral reefs to enhance their resilience. The research employed population genetics and computer modeling to map coral reef connectivity, revealing high levels of connectivity facilitated by ocean currents. This discovery suggests that prioritizing conservation efforts on source reefs, which supply baby corals to other reefs, could bolster regional reef resilience.

Mapping Coral Superhighways

Understanding the genetic connectivity between reefs is crucial for designing effective marine management strategies. The study focused on the Porites lutea species complex, sequencing DNA from 241 coral colonies across 12 islands in Seychelles. Despite the remoteness of many islands, the results demonstrated significant genetic similarities between distant coral populations, indicating high connectivity. For instance, the DNA of corals from the remote Aldabra atoll shared strong genetic ties with those from Mahé, Seychelles’ most populated island, despite the 1,000 km distance.

Computer simulations, using ocean current data, supported these genetic findings by predicting the transport of baby corals across the archipelago. These simulations identified strong currents that connect inner and outer islands, facilitating the movement of larvae and thus, genetic exchange. Such connectivity underscores the importance of considering genetic data in reef conservation planning, as it can reveal hidden links that contribute to reef resilience.

Innovative Conservation Strategies

The insights gained from this study are poised to enhance the management and preservation of coral reefs in Seychelles and beyond. An interactive web application developed alongside the research provides marine managers with tools to visualize and understand reef connections, enabling more informed decision-making. By focusing conservation efforts on key source reefs, the overall health and resilience of the regional reef system can be improved.

Additionally, the study suggests that land-based interventions, such as eradicating invasive species like rats, can indirectly benefit coral reefs. Restoring native seabird populations, which contribute nutrients to near-shore waters, can enhance coral growth and fish biomass. These combined efforts highlight the multifaceted approach needed to address the challenges facing coral reefs in the face of climate change.

The findings from Seychelles demonstrate that understanding and harnessing genetic connectivity among coral reefs can play a pivotal role in their conservation. By adopting these strategies, small island developing states and other regions with coral reef systems can enhance the resilience of these critical ecosystems, ensuring their survival in an era of climate change.

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