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Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center - Florida
Cruise Log: 9/17/2009
Connectivity in Lophelia
In our connectivity studies, we aim to identify the pathways in which animal exchanges take place among Lophelia reef habitats, the spatial scales that exchanges are likely to occur, and ultimately, the biological and physical forces that shape these patterns. However, studies of connectivity are not straightforward because it remains difficult to observe and quantify animal movements. Therefore, we use indirect methods to assess connectivity. One such method is population genetics, where highly variable molecular markers are utilized to characterize populations. Since movements will homogenize the genetic signature between populations, we can examine the extent of shared genetic markers and then estimate levels of connectivity. In our initial survey of Lophelia populations in the Gulf of Mexico (see picture from the West Florida Slope Lophelia habitat taken yesterday) and the North Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern U.S. (see Map), we found that connectivity was fairly high within ocean regions (Gulf vs. Atlantic), but was restricted between regions. Additionally, populations that occur at similar depths had higher connectivity.
Connectivity and Resource Management
Knowledge of connectivity patterns helps resource managers develop effective plans to protect these fragile deep-sea ecosystems. For example, we can identify populations that act as sources of animals to other populations because animals often move (or disperse) from these source populations. Sources may become very important in replenishing neighboring reef areas that are damaged. On the other hand, reefs that are less connected are more isolated, potentially making them vulnerable to extinction should they be damaged. From connectivity studies we also learn about how reef communities are structured and how biodiversity is distributed in the Gulf. An interesting aspect of the Gulf of Mexico is that many man-made structures such as shipwrecks and oil rigs occur here. Such structures may essentially increase connectivity between natural reef areas if they occur in an intermediate location between reefs. We are still discovering new Lophelia reef habitats. As knowledge of connectivity patterns improves and more data regarding bottom topography and currents becomes available, we will be able to predict where additional reef habitats are located with more accuracy, allowing for protective measures to be established.
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