Summary by Carrie Pinkard, Science Journalism Intern for USFCMS
ST. PETERSBURG, FL – Dr. Maria Dornelas from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland spent years studying the Great Barrier Reef off Lizard Island. She had her head in the coral so often that she often didn’t see sharks swimming by. The island felt like home to her; she even had a baby there. This is why when the coral was devasted by back to back cyclones and bleaching from high temperatures from 2014 to 2017, she was devastated.
Despite this, her lecture at USF’s College of Marine Science on Thursday, April 11 was one of hope. Hope backed by data. In case you missed her talk, here are the five main takeaways.
- She helped start a database that tracks biodiversity
One of Dornelas’ main projects is BioTIME, a database that tracks biodiversity on a global scale. She showed the audience a map of the world that marked where BioTIME has data. Although a large portion of the Earth was covered, a large portion was not. Dornelas’ emphasized the need for more connections around the world and access to even more data.
“If the goal is to understand how biodiversity is affecting our planet, it’s not good to have blind spots,” she said.
- Extinctions and colonizations are accelerating
In the study Dornelas’ showed of more than 10 years of data, both extinctions and colonizations of species are accelerating. The extinction of species is most evident in the tropics.
“I want to say that the tropics are not doing great,” Dornelas said. “Pretty much all the losses we see are in the tropics.”
- As temperatures warm, species will start moving toward the poles
In order to adapt to a warming planet, species will start moving to more temperate areas toward the poles. Areas near the equator will become too hot for species to survive.
“Maybe we could start having coral reefs form in Scotland,” Dornelas’ jokes to the audience, since coral reefs are only found in much warmer areas.
- We may consider rethinking traditional conservationism
Dornelas says that the type of conservationism that tries to preserve things exactly as they are is flawed. Species will change as animals hybridize in order to survive.
“We shouldn’t get in the way of ecosystems adapting to change we caused,” she said.
- There is hope in new life
Just as Dornelas had a baby of her own on Lizard Island, the reef has sprouted baby coral recently – in 2018. If conditions stay right, the reef might rebuild itself into abundant life force it once was.
This gives us hope that nature is able to bounce back and adapt even to severe environmental changes.
“The baby coral leaves us with hope that things might bounce back,” Dornelas said. “It’s the coral at the end of the rainbow.”