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gump station from afar

Mo'orea: Coral Reef Research in Paradise

With groundbreaking discoveries and innovative techniques in long-term ecological  research, UC Santa Barbara is making waves at Gump Research Station, Mo'orea, where scientists are expanding our understanding of coral reef ecosystems and preparing the next generation of marine ecologists. 

 

What is Gump Research Station?

Situated on Cook’s Bay along the north shore of the island of Mo’orea, the University of California Gump Research Station is a premiere field station where scientists conduct critical research on the coral reefs and the many marine species that make their home in the warm waters of French Polynesia.
 
Much of the work being done at Gump Research Station is led by UC Santa Barbara scientists, many of whom are seeking to understand how global change and other disturbances are impacting coral reef health. In 2004, the National Science Foundation established the Mo’orea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research (MCR LTER) site with ecology professors Sally Holbrook and Russ Schmitt as principal investigators.

 

“These kinds of field stations are really the observatories for global change science and sustainability science”

—Russ Schmitt, Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, UC Santa Barbara

 

 

 

 

Long Term Ecological Research

For three decades, ecologists Sally Holbrook and Russ Schmitt have been studying the coral reef complex that surrounds the island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia, seeking to understand what drives ecological change in natural systems. Specialists in population and community dynamics, they are co-principal investigators with the Mo’orea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research (MCR LTER) site.
 
When in the field, MCR LTER researchers are based at the University of California Gump Research Station on Mo’orea. The field station gives scientists the unique opportunity to study the coral reefs surrounding Mo’orea in real time, contributing new knowledge while drawing from the trove of data that has been collected over 30 years. Together, they are working to find answers to some of the most pressing global questions of our time.
 

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erika eliason at gump station

Ecological physiologist Erika Eliason is studying how global climate change and increasing water temperatures are affecting fish populations and their ability to thrive. Like all animals, they have an optimal temperature range. An uptick of even a few degrees significantly impacts their wellbeing and in turn that of coral. “We’re trying to understand the mechanism behind that,” said Eliason.
 

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Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, according to marine biologist Deron Burkepile, and he and his team are studying factors that impact coral reef health. They’re focusing on coral bleaching, a process driven by rising sea surface temperatures, but made worse by nutrient pollution and sewage that make their way into the ocean. “One of the things we’re trying to understand is how humans can change their behavior in order to help coral reefs recover and even thrive.”

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hunter by the boat

Bren School of Environmental Science & Management professor Hunter Lenihan studies coral reef community ecology as well as collaborative fisheries management. For the former, Lenihan measures the long-term changes in coral populations and uses the information to create models that provide insight into coral communities in the future. Lenihan also works with local fishing communities in Mo’orea to understand how their activities impact different fish populations and how they can adapt to support sustainable catches through time.

 

“Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.”

—Deron Burkepile, Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, UC Santa Barbara
 

 

 

 

Coral Reef Research 

Corals are marine invertebrates that live in communities of hundreds to thousands of identical, individual soft-bodied polyps. Each of these polyps secretes calcium carbonate, which collectively creates the hard outer skeleton that gives coral its familiar appearance. That skeletal structure provides a habitat for a host of other species, including fish and other invertebrates. 

Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, and that makes them key to the health of the planet. They occupy much less than 1% of all marine habitat, but are home to as much as a third of all marine species.
 
In addition, coral reefs are critical to the millions of people who depend on them for food or as a means of livelihood through fishing and tourism, and to those who count on them as physical barriers that protect shorelines from damage caused by currents, waves and tropical storms.
 
Much of the research conducted at Gump Research Station examines the resilience of Mo’orea’s coral reef systems and their resident species in the face of disturbances such as ocean temperature spikes.
 

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Agricultural pollution affects coral reefs

Agricultural development has a tremendous impact on coral reefs, especially in the shallow waters of the lagoons surrounding Mo’orea. The removal of trees from large swaths of land for planting creates a lot of loose dirt. When the rains come, the dirt flows into the bays and out to the lagoon where it harms the corals in a number of ways. The turbid, murky water impedes sunlight, so the algal cells can’t photosynthesize properly. In addition, the sediment can coat the corals and virtually smother them, and the fertilizers that benefit plants on land can wreak havoc on corals, making them stressed and possibly more vulnerable to bleaching.

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The coral reefs around Mo’orea present a unique learning opportunity for marine scientists. Time and again, the reefs have been severely impacted by disturbances such as tropical storms, predator outbreaks and, more recently, bleaching events. And yet they have shown tremendous resilience, with many rebounding over the course of 10 years or so. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in other parts of the world where similar events have taken place. Researchers studying Mo’orea’s coral reef are seeking to understand the factors that contribute to its resilience and to glean insights into reef recovery that might be applied in other areas.

 

“It’s one of the most amazing experiences.”

—Nury Molina, Ph.D. student, Ecology,
   Evolution & Marine Biology, UC Santa Barbara

 

 

Graduate Student Experience

Graduate student are conducting research on coral reefs that ranges from how herbivory controls algae that compete with corals to whether and how well fish adapt to rising sea water temperatures. All are making major contributions to our understanding of coral reef ecosystems and how they are responding to the impacts of global change and human activity.
 
For some, Gump Research Station is not their first field station experience, but it’s the most valuable.
 

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“Having independence as a grad student has made me think about my own interests and pursue my own research projects, and that is really important for me moving forward in my career. And a big part of that is the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students.”

— Kelly Speare, Ph.D. student

 

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ucsb grad kelly speare

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ucsb grad randi
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ucsb grad Kaitlin
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ucsb grad nury
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ucsb grad erin winslow
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ucsb grad kai

“I can’t imagine a better set-up for conducting research in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”

— Kai Kopecki, Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, UC Santa Barbara
 

“The collaboration and energy of Gump Research Station is why I love coming back here. Everybody is helping each other out, and everyone is really interested in what others are working on. We all have the common goal of trying to understand what’s going on out here.”

— Jordan Gallagher, master's student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, UC Santa Barbara

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ucsb grad jordan
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ucsb grad jaycee
 

“I came to UC Santa Barbara looking for an opportunity like this.”

— Haley Glassman, fourth-year aquatic biology major, UC Santa Barbara

 

Undergraduate Student Experience 

It’s life changing — spending a summer at a field station on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia, contributing to real-time scientific research. The work is hard, the days are long and the friendships are everlasting.
 
At Gump Research Station, undergraduates have the opportunity to bring the knowledge they have gained in the classroom and in campus labs to a real-world environment. Some find their passion in field work and expedition science, others discover it’s not for them and set career paths that take them in other directions. Either way, the educational value is immeasurable.

 

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undergrad Haley Glasmann
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ucsb undergrad ally

“I really like living here at Gump Station. It’s a community. ”

— Ally Aplin, aquatic biology major, UC Santa Barbara
 

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ucsb undergrad lauren

“I can’t think of any other experience where I get to interact with such high-level faculty members doing cutting-edge research.” 

— Kai Oda, aquatic biology major, UC Santa Barbara
 

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undergrad Kai Oda
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undergrad Journ Galvan
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undergrad Kara Heimlich

“Here you get firsthand experience with the person who is the primary investigator and doing active research, and you really get a lot of time to communicate with them not just about science but to get to know them as people.”

— Kera Heimlich, aquatic biology (recent) graduate, UC Santa Barbara
 

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undergrad Maya Gorgas
 

Community Outreach

Environmental research that expands our understanding of the coral reef ecosystems around Mo’orea is the primary function of Mo’orea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research initiatives, but the scientists who work there also are keen to share their knowledge with school children — both in Mo’orea and in California — to nurture their budding scientific curiosity.
 
They also welcome opportunities such as Earth Day and World Oceans Day to share their research — and enthusiasm — with the public.

 

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