Dark Spot: Prime Suspect in Coral Death Case

Student Research Highlight: Ben Farmer

Farmer conducts AGRRA survey                          PC: Megan Siemann

What school do you come from? Major? Academic Year?

I’m from the University of Kentucky! This is my junior year as a Biology major.

What question(s) does your research address?

There is a coral disease called dark spots disease (DSD). I am questioning whether DSD or other diseases cause coral death on a reef-wide scale. I’m also looking to find whether coral diseases in the reef increase over time due to water temperature and light level.

Was it difficult to devise a research question?

Yep! That said, it was really nice being able to work directly in the field and come up with a study based on observations made on the reef. The interns and professors were there every step of the way, but ultimately it was up to us students to ask questions and find answers.

Was it difficult to devise the methods for your research question?

Total opposite, the methods were easy! In our Field Research Methods class, we learned how to do AGRRA (Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment) coral surveys. I ended up doing a modified version of AGRRA surveys for my methodology.

Describe a typical day of data collection for your research project?

My research buddy and I usually got up early in the morning and went out to Playa Lechi for our dives. My dives usually went to about 10 meters depth, where we assessed coral health along a 10 meter line. After about 45 minutes, we would gather up our gear and head up to the surface.

What major difficulties did you have to overcome to complete your project?

A major portion of my project was organizing and compiling AGRRA data from the last 10 years. I also had to find a way to organize weather and light data from 2008-2013. That was definitely the hardest part, because data wasn’t always recorded consistently. However I got a large part of that work done while I had ear issues and couldn’t dive, which was convenient (sort of)!

What was the most fun part of your research project?

I think the best part was finally finishing up data compilation, and seeing thousands of rows of data in Excel. That might sound intimidating, but it felt nice being able to say I had finished everything. Also, I got lots of help from the interns and instructors (shout out to Lydia, Dr. Elmer, and Dr. Turco!) with analyzing all that data, which made things much easier.

Describe the general findings of your research project.

I am still in the process of setting up graphs and running analyses, so I don’t have super clear results yet. I can say that there are fairly low percentages of disease on a reef-wide scale, and dark spots disease does not appear to cause significant coral death. The sample size was small, though, which likely affected these results. I’m sure that a similar study in the future would be able to assess more of Bonaire, and potentially get more significant results.

Has the process of conducting an independent research project made you a better scientist?

Definitely! I’ve learned so much about conducting research that I wouldn’t have been able to get back home. Being able to do so on a coral reef is pretty unbelievable. The semester isn’t even over yet, and already I feel very prepared for future research in marine biology.

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