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Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:The University Corporation, Northridge
  • Peter J Edmunds
  • (818) 677-2502
Award Date:07/22/2013
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 646,154
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 661,063
  • FY 2013=$646,154
  • FY 2014=$14,909
Start Date:09/01/2013
End Date:08/31/2017
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.050
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:Collaborative research: RUI-Ecology and functional biology of octocoral communities
Federal Award ID Number:1332915
DUNS ID:055752331
Parent DUNS ID:055752331
Program Officer:
  • Daniel Thornhill
  • (703) 292-0000

Awardee Location

Street:18111 Nordhoff Street
Awardee Cong. District:30

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:California State University-Northridge
Cong. District:30

Abstract at Time of Award

The recent past has not been good for coral reefs, and journals have been filled with examples of declining coral cover, crashing fish populations, rising cover of macroalgae, and a future potentially filled with slime. However, reefs are more than the corals and fishes for which they are known best, and their biodiversity is affected strongly by other groups of organisms. The non-coral fauna of reefs is being neglected in the rush to evaluate the loss of corals and fishes, and this project will add on to an on-going long term ecological study by studying soft corals. This project will be focused on the ecology of soft corals on reefs in St. John, USVI to understand the Past, Present and the Future community structure of soft corals in a changing world. For the Past, the principal investigators will complete a retrospective analysis of octocoral abundance in St. John between 1992 and the present, as well as Caribbean-wide since the 1960's. For the Present, they will: (i) evaluate spatio-temporal changes between soft corals and corals, (ii) test for the role of competition with macroalgae and between soft corals and corals as processes driving the rising abundance of soft corals, and (iii) explore the role of soft corals as "animal forests" in modifying physical conditions beneath their canopy, thereby modulating recruitment dynamics. For the Future the project will conduct demographic analyses on key soft corals to evaluate annual variation in population processes and project populations into a future impacted by global climate change. The broader impacts of this project will be at multiple educational levels. At the university level, the project will have impacts on the quality of the academic environment at an RUI institution (CSUN) and a leading PhD-awarding institution (University of Buffalo). Additionally, it will provide unique opportunities for training and research by graduate students, as well as opportunities for undergraduate participation in fieldwork through existing funding and REU supplements. The PIs will build on an existing relationship with a high school in St. John, USVI since 2006. We will host: (1) marine biology club activities at the school through participation of faculty, a postdoctoral research associate and graduate students, (2) laboratory opportunities focused on the biology of soft corals, (3) field opportunities for teachers from the US to work in St. John, and (4) with the support of parents and CSUN, will offer a St. John field trip for select students from local schools. The reach of these opportunities will be broadened through new collaborations with two teachers based in the public schools of LA County. Finally, in the Caribbean established "ecocamps" at the host marine laboratory will be used to work with children from Caribbean islands to provide educational experiences focused on ecology and conservation.

Publications Produced as a Result of this Research

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Peter J. Edmunds, Georgios Tsounis, Howard Lasker "Differential distribution of octocorals and scleractinians around St. John and St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands" Hydrobiologia, v.767, 2016, p.347. doi:doi:10.?1007/?s10750-015-2555-z 

Elizabeth A. Lenz, Lorenzo Bramanti, Howard R. Lasker, and Peter J. Edmunds "Long-term variation of octocoral populations in St. John, US Virgin Islands" Coral Reefs, v.34, 2015, p.1099. doi:doi:10.?1007/?s00338-015-1315-x 

Kristin Privitera-Johnson, Elizabeth A. Lenz, Peter J. Edmunds "Density-associated recruitment in octocoral communities in St. John, US Virgin Islands" JEMBE, v.473, 2015, p.103. 

PJ Edmunds, HR Lasker "Cryptic regime shift in benthic community structure on shallow reefs in St. John, US Virgin Islands" Marine Ecology Progress Series, v.559, 2016, p.1. doi:DOI 10.3354/meps11900 

G. Tsounis, PJ Edmunds "Three decades of coral reef community dynamics in St. John, USVI: a contrast of scleractinians and octocorals" Ecosphere, v.8, 2017, p.e01646. doi:10.1002/ecs2.1646 

G. Tsounis, PJ Edmunds "The potential for self-seeding by the coral Pocillopora spp. in Moorea, French Polynesia" PeerJ, v., 2016, p.e2544. doi:10.7717/peerj.2544 

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

This project focused on soft corals in St. John, US Virgin Islands, which provides some of the most extensively studied reefs in the US. One such study began in 1987 to document long-term changes affecting stony corals, and in an era of intense environmental challenges, this project described a decadal-scale history of stony coral mortality. Like most studies of “coral” reefs, the legacy project focused on stony corals and largely overlooked soft corals. The present award was a collaboration between California State University, Northridge (Dr. P.J. Edmunds), and the University of Buffalo (Dr. H.R. Lasker) and had the objective of addressing this omission through a soft coral “overlay” to the existing analysis of stony corals.

The study was based in St. John, which provides a unique location to study coral reefs because ~ 75% of the island is protected within the VI National Park. Therefore, changes on the reefs are less likely to reflect local disturbances, and instead, reflect broader-scale phenomena such as gradually changing climatic conditions. To exploit the opportunity created by St. John, this project was implemented in four phases: (1) description of the species of soft corals on the shallow reefs, (2) analyses of the trends in soft coral abundance over the past 25 y, (3) identification of mechanisms causing soft corals to change in abundance, and (4) developing the capacity to forecast the future of soft corals on Caribbean reefs. Through a three-year program of field-based research, we have made strong progress in all four phases, and now are poised to expand the study into the next decade.

The most important discovery arising from this work provides evidence that soft corals have thrived on these reefs over the last 25 years, and it is likely that they will do so into the future. Since 1987, stony corals have died at an alarming rate, but in their place, dense “forests” of soft corals have grown. “Forest” is a perfect analogy to describe these communities, as most Caribbean soft corals grow upward into the water column, thereby escaping competition with algae on the seafloor. The canopy of this forest creates local conditions promoting resilience (i.e., regrowth following damage) through enhanced recruitment. Soft coral recruits settle in profusion beneath the canopy, where they grow in cracks, from which they quickly extend upwards. Their colonies can grow at such high densities that their branches interfere with adjacent colonies, and promote self-thinning much as occurs among trees in a dense forest.

Our work provides compelling evidence that octocorals have become more abundant over the last few decades, both in the Caribbean and within St. John. Interestingly, these communities do not appear to be “new” per se, rather present-day soft coral communities reflect a spatial expansion of the communities described decades ago. Forests of soft corals provide an impressive sight to the casual observer, and while they allow reefs to maintain cover and shelter fish, the soft colonies cannot provide the structural protections to near-shore habitats that traditionally have been provided by stony corals. This project was conducted during a period of remarkable calm (2014-2017) in terms of hurricanes impacting St. John, but Hurricane Irma has provided a dramatic end to this period. The next few years will reveal whether soft corals really are more resilient to catastrophic disturbances than stony corals.

This research was conducted through a program of broader outreach providing unique opportunities for training promoting science literacy and science careers. These opportunities were provided to participants at multiple levels of scientific training, and the majority included travel to St. John to obtain hands-on experience in field ecology, and marine natural history. The project employed two postdoctoral scholars to advance operations at CSUN and in St. John, and their work was supported through graduate students opportunities that included students who were studying for their MS degrees on soft coral biology. Undergraduates also participated in the fieldwork, where they served critical roles in advancing basic field science while conducting independent research furthering their scientific interests.

A key part of the project has been engagement with schools, teachers, and children in California and the Virgin Islands. Faculty and graduate students have worked with teachers in California to maintain “marine biology” clubs providing exposure to marine research, the goals of this project, and research opportunities. These efforts have been advanced through teacher involvement, with personal participating in fieldwork in St. John where they conducted research and led outreach activities. The host of our research in St. John - the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station – supports a summer program for local children, and this provided the opportunity for science presentations and field activities focused on the time-series analyses at the heart of this project.

Data from this project are available at and


Last Modified: 09/09/2017
Modified by: Peter J Edmunds

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