You won’t believe this simple trick to tell if your coral is healthy or not

science communication climate change coral reef oceans

A commentary on how to make science more ‘clickable’

You won’t believe this simple trick to tell if your coral is healthy or not

The internet is a big place. Amidst intense competition for readership online, could scientists make their research feel more ‘clickable’? Should they?

If you are reading this post: thank you. I don’t need to tell you that there is no shortage of choices when it comes to reading things on the internet. The massive volume of online content has led to major competition for readership. Let’s face it: it doesn’t matter what the article is about, we click on articles with catchy titles. Let’s face this too while we’re at it, this has led us to reading or watching videos about some pretty dumb stuff. But don’t worry, it’s not our fault! We click on this stuff because we’re supposed to — these articles are made specifically to feel more ‘clickable’. On the internet, this is called ‘click bait’.

Now, why are you reading about click bait in a blog about biology? Here’s why: many of us who fall victim to click bait would rather spend our time reading more interesting content, like cool new research in biology, but by the time we’re done watching a dumb video, we don’t have time to read an interesting article about biology because have to get back to work! The ‘catchiness’ of the rest of the internet is simply not being matched by the people who write about biology.

I purpose a solution: biologists and science journalists who cover biology should title their research with clickability in mind. This way, the rest of us will have an easier time finding, clicking on, and reading about the cool new research going on.

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Fig. 1 Healthy coral reef (Source: Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Here is an example: A recent article published in the Journal of Experimental and Marine Biology and Ecology is titled “Mitochondrial electron transport activity and metabolism of experimentally bleached hermatypic corals” [1]. Your brain was probably turning off half-way through reading that title, right? But the research is actually very interesting, and you should read the article. The researchers on this project report on a faster and easier way for biologists to monitor the health of coral reefs — which is important because we all want to keep our coral reefs healthy! After all, coral reefs are some of the most productive and beautiful ecosystems on this planet. So, have you read this article yet?

Here’s the back story: One consequence of warming ocean temperatures and increasing ocean acidification due to global climate change is causing something called ‘coral bleaching’. What’s coral bleaching, you ask? It’s bad. Coral bleaching is when coral colonies lose their color and eventually collapse. The most traditional hypothesis for the way coral bleaching happens has to do with the colorful, algae-like organisms that live inside coral and give coral it’s color. These microscopic organisms are called zooxanthellae and they have a mutually-beneficial relationship with the coral they live inside — the coral provide the zooxanthellae a home, and the zooxanthellae provide the coral nutrients in return. When the warming or acidifying ocean environment harms the health of the zooxanthellae and they stop providing the coral with nutrients, the coral expels the zooxanthellae and end up turning a stark white color. If no new zooxanthellae move back into the coral, its bad news for the coral.

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Fig. 2 Bleached coral, Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef (Source: public domain)

Recently however, biologists have begun to realize the health of coral itself (rather than just the zooxanthellae) actually plays a bigger role in the cause of coral bleaching. So, if biologists could monitor the health of the coral, maybe they could predict and help stop coral bleaching events. Unfortunately monitoring the health of coral has been a really hard thing to do.

The new research highlighted here changes that. The researchers on this project show that a simple method for measuring metabolism in coral (metabolism is the important processes like producing and consuming nutrients) might also be useful in understanding coral health and predicting bleaching events. The researchers show that an easy measure of metabolism was correlated with many indicators of coral health, such as the zooxanthellae density and the rate of photosynthesis occurring within the coral. They suggest that simple monitoring in this way could help inform biologists about potential bleaching events before they happen.

Wow! Knowing about coral bleaching events before they happen is important stuff. I love corals — why didn’t I see this article sooner?! Images of coral reefs with their colorful displays and ‘Nemo’ fish swimming around always conjure up feelings of being on vacation somewhere warm and sunny. I want us to keep coral reefs healthy for long enough for me to finally plan that trip to Australia to see them for myself.

To make sure I never miss an article like this again, maybe biologists and science journalists should consider using more ‘clickable’ titles, such as: “You won’t believe this simple trick to tell if your coral is healthy or not”.

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Fig. 3 A more ‘clickable’ title?


[1] Agostini, S., Fujimura, H., Hayashi, H., Fujita, K. 2016. Mitochondrial electron transport activity and metabolism of experimentally bleached hermatypic corals. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 475:100-107

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