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Research Spending & Results

Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:SUNY at Buffalo
  • Howard R Lasker
  • (716) 645-4870
Award Date:07/22/2013
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 314,563
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 314,563
  • FY 2013=$314,563
Start Date:09/01/2013
End Date:02/28/2018
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: Ecology and functional biology of octocoral communities
Federal Award ID Number:1334052
DUNS ID:038633251
Parent DUNS ID:020657151
Program Officer:
  • Daniel J. Thornhill
  • (703) 292-8143

Awardee Location

Street:520 Lee Entrance
Awardee Cong. District:26

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:SUNY at Buffalo
Street:411 Cooke Hall
Cong. District:26

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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Coelho, M.G. Lasker, H.R. "Larval behavior and settlement dynamics of a ubiquitous Caribbean octocoral and its implications for dispersal" Marine Ecology Progress Series, v.561, 2016, p.109. doi:10.3354/meps11941 

Tsounis, G Edmunds, PJ Bramanti, L Gambrel, B Lasker, HR "Variability of size structure and species composition Caribbean octocoral communities under contrasting environmental conditions" Marine Biology, v.165, 2018, p.1. doi:10.1007/s00227-018-3286-2 

Bramanti,L, Lasker, HR Edmunds, PJ "The encrusting alga Peyssonnelia preempts vacant space and overgrows corals in St. John, US Virgin Islands" Reef Encounter, v.32, 2017, p.67.

Lenz E.A., Bramanti L., Lasker H., and Edmunds P.J. "Long-term variation of octocoral populations in St. John, US Virgin Islands" Coral Reefs, v.34, 2015, p.. doi:DOI 10.1007/s00338-015-1315-x 

Edmunds, P. J. Tsounis, G. Lasker, HR "Differential distribution of octocorals and scleractinians around St. John and St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands." Hydrobiologia, v.767, 2016, p.347. doi:10.1007/s10750-015-2555-z 

P.J. Edmunds, G. Tsounis, H.R. Lasker "Differential distribution of octocorals and scleractinians around St. John and St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands" Hydrobiologia, v.767, 2015, p.347.

Gambrel, B. Lasker, H.R. "Interactions in the canopy among Caribbean reef octocorals." Marine Ecology Progress Series, v.546, 2016, p.85.

Edmunds, P Lasker, HR "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:10.3354/meps11900 

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 is a collaboration between the laboratories of Dr. Howard R. Lasker, University at Buffalo and Dr. Peter J. Edmunds, California State University, Northridge.  The research focused on soft corals on St. John, US Virgin Islands.  The hard corals on these reefs have been monitored since 1987, providing one of the most extensive data sets of a Caribbean reef.  The new work adds octocorals to that monitoring effort at a time at which Caribbean octocorals have been reported to be increasing in abundance, even as the hard corals decline.  St. John is particularly suited for such a study as 75% of the island is a national park, minimizing locally derived anthropogenic effects.

The research has proceeded with 4 general goals, a description of the species of soft corals on the shallow reefs, analyses of the trends in soft coral abundance over the past 25 y, identification of mechanisms causing soft corals to change in abundance, and developing the capacity to forecast the future of soft corals on Caribbean reefs.

Soft corals, unlike the hard corals, have received relatively little attention in research programs and one of the fundamental tasks of the project was documenting the composition of the soft coral community at three sites chosen to characterize a range of shallow water reef habitats.  Those surveys have characterized the community at species level precision and indicate that most of the Caribbean fauna is present on St. John and that species present at the sites varies with differences in those physical environments. 

Retrospective analyses of legacy data from earlier monitoring demonstrates that since a low point following the 1997-98 El Niño soft corals have increased in abundance and are more abundant than prior to the 1997-98 event.  However, the composition of the community that developed after 1997-98 is different than prior to the event.  Composition over the past 4 years has been stable.  This is in contrast to scleractinian abundances which have continued to decline at most sites. The effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on these reefs and the species level resolution data that we now have provides opportunity to further explore recovery following disturbance.

The dense “forests” of octocorals that have developed at some sites modify the environment and create a habitat in which octocorals interact with each other, competing for space in the canopy and possibly facilitating recruitment.

Monitoring recruitment to tiles placed on the reef indicates that soft coral larvae are arriving and/or surviving at higher rates than scleractinians. Positioning of these larvae both on artificial tiles and the natural reef substrate shows soft coral larvae have microhabitat preferences which may differ from hard corals, possibly explaining some of the differences in success of the two groups. Survival of soft coral recruits has been high.  However, abundances of the soft coral larvae also indicate that the relative abundances of adults are driven by a combination of supply of larvae and differential survival of larvae.

These data are critical to understanding how Caribbean reefs will respond to continuing change in the environment and to future episodic events such as bleaching and hurricanes.

In addition to training undergraduate and graduate students, participants in the project have also contributed to the educational program at the Virgin Islands Resource Center in its outreach programs for students in the Virgin Islands.

The project is also contributing to the further development of the website South Florida Octocorals: A guide to identification (, which is designed to help with soft coral identification by both the public and specialists.

Data from this project are available at and


Last Modified: 05/06/2018
Modified by: Howard R Lasker

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