In a keynote talk at the International Climate Change Workshop for the Galapagos Islands on October 25th, Jon Witman outlined the ecological impacts of three El Ninos on the underwater realm of the Galapagos Marine Reserve that he and colleagues Franz Smith and Robert Lamb have measured over the last 18 years. He likened the long-term impact of the El Nino climate oscillations to a roller coaster. That is, the El Nino warm phase represents a period of stress for marine life with high temperatures and scarce planktonic food, potentially decreasing population numbers and the diversity of bottom dwelling marine life – the downhill phase of the roller coaster.
Participants of the workshop on climate change in the Galapagos pose for a picture, including Jon Witman (second from left, back row), Pelayo Salinas de Leon, Boris Worm, Daniel Pauly, and other members of the Charles Darwin Station, Galapagos National Park, visiting scientists, and the Ecuadorian navy.
One sign of stress was that massive and finger corals turned white (bleached) during a broad temperature regime ranging from 30 to 16 o C in 12 months as the cool nutrient rich La Nina period followed the warm phase. For example, chlorophyll a, a measure of planktonic food concentration increased 7-fold during La Nina. Thus the team speculated that the ecosystem bounces back a certain degree during La Ninas – rolling uphill on the coaster, demonstrating resilience. A surprisingly consistent response seen during all 3 La Nina events was that barnacles settled and grew all over the rocky bottom and on the stressed corals down to 20 m depth. This represents a boost to the food chain as many species of fish and snails feed on the barnacles. It appears that the La Nina- increased barnacles may be slowly displacing corals. While corals did not bleach as much as previous El Ninos during the strong 2015-2016 El Nino, we observed a diverse range of ecological impacts from skin disease in reef fish to intense sea urchin grazing and a bloom of cyanobacteria at some oceanic sites. Our work underscores the importance of sustained ecological monitoring to detect the impact of climate oscillations in the ocean.
Fiona Beltram traveled to the University of Pennsylvania for the inaugural Ivy League Undergraduate Research Symposium (ILURS). The symposium consisted of 200 undergraduate students from Ivy League schools who were involved in independent research at their respective schools. Most students presented posters, while others gave short talks. Guest lectures by University of Pennsylvania and visiting faculty were also arranged throughout the three-day conference. Research topics ranged from art history and public health to astronomy and cancer research. Fiona gave a poster presentation detailing the results of her current work, which will serve as the first two chapters of her thesis for honors in the Biology degree. She is studying the appearance of cyanobacterial mats on the Galapagos reefs, the potential for a temperature-mediated introduction mechanism that is closely tied to El Niño extremes, and the ecological effects of the species’ continued presence on the reef.
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