Public Release: 

New research tools are opening the 'black box' of coastal ecosystems

American Association for the Advancement of Science

DENVER, CO - Characterized by unimaginably complex, three-dimensional currents and sharp, shallow reefs too hazardous for oceanographers to navigate, coastal ecosystems have traditionally been a mysterious "black box."

But, at least four emerging research tools in oceanography and marine ecology are now opening new doors to shed light on coastal ecosystems, researchers noted in a peer-reviewed article forthcoming in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the journal of the Ecological Society of America.

The peer-reviewed research, unveiled at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, provides the knowledge needed to design effective strategies for sustaining delicate coastal marine environments, said Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University, lead author of the journal article. "It's a collaboration of high technologies that together allows us to visualize and predict the way marine ecosystems work. Those technologies focus unprecedented power on understanding ocean life."

Examining the "human footprint" on coastal ecosystems grows increasingly important as more and more people settle near ocean coastlines and evidence of rapid changes in these areas continues to emerge, AAAS speakers noted.

"We need to know how these ecosystems work so that we can make better use of applied management strategies," said Robert R. Warner of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a co-author on the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment paper. "Right now, it's a little like knowing that someone is sick and a particular pill helps, but not understanding why or how. We need to know the underlying mechanisms crucial for sustaining coastal ecosystems."

A key question, Warner noted, is where various coastal marine species travel as they grow and disperse. "These underwater environments are characterized by very complicated ocean processes and by tiny organisms that are drifting in a 'blanket' for weeks or months," he explained. "Eventually, they settle into habitats and replenish populations. But, the real challenge is to describe this dispersal and how coastal communities are put together. When settlement occurs, where do the young come from? We need to know because the current trend is spatial management--that is, drawing lines across the ocean, for zoning purposes."

Innovative new tools, including genetic mapping of marine populations, are revealing that near-shore underwater neighborhoods "are a lot smaller and cozier than we ever imagined," Palumbi said. Thus, Warner added, "Action taken locally, in a particular area, can have a very strong effect" in protecting near-shore marine environments.

Indeed, new research shows that many marine species stick close to home, or at least don't always disperse forever, as scientists long believed, according to Palumbi. Such information may ultimately suggest a need to redraw ocean zoning lines.

The Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article outlines several research tools that will be critical to learning more about the usefulness and impact of one emerging management tool--marine reserves. To learn more about marine reserve effects on the ecosystems in which they are imbedded, the authors proposed, new insights are being achieved using the following four research methods:

  • Remote ocean sensing, in real time, over short spatial and temporal scales, is helping scientists chart the dynamics of ocean environments at scales as small as 1 kilometer, thus revealing the physical connections between reserve and non-reserve areas.
  • The chemical signal of trace metals in growing skeletons of key marine species now allows researchers to track where larvae and juveniles drift in the sea.
  • Genetic differences among populations provide a general method for indirect monitoring of species dispersal, both inside and outside reserves.
  • Computer-based mapping tools make it possible to place layers of ecosystem information into an accessible geographic context, using global information satellite (GIS) databases.

By using such new research tools to open the black box of the near-shore underwater world, scientists hope to better assess the array of conservation options, from marine reserves to large-scale restoration. New investigative strategies "help inform management because they describe ecosystem patterns over the spatial and temporal scales that are directly relevant to conservation and ecosystem management," the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article concludes.

Palumbi and Warner were joined during the AAAS newsbriefing by Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University and Margaret McManus of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Speakers are expected to discuss the latest Pew Oceans Commission recommendations on marine ecosystem protection during the AAAS newsbriefing. Palumbi was author of a Pew Oceans Commission report, released 14 January, which concluded that fully protected marine reserves are an effective tool for restoring and maintaining coastal and marine habitats. (See Research discussed at the meeting also was sponsored in part by Seaweb.


Advance interviews possible upon request.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 265 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

MEDIA NOTE: This research will be discussed during a newsbriefing at 12 noon Saturday, 15 February, during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver, Rooms C-110-112, in the Colorado Convention Center. These and other researchers also will take part in a related scientific session beginning at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, 15 February, Room A-201, Main Level, Colorado Convention Center. Press registration for the meeting is located in the Colorado Convention Center, C-101.

All presenters at the scientific session are affiliated with PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a research consortium involving marine scientists from four universities along the U.S. West Coast: Oregon State University; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Stanford University. PISCO scientists at these universities collaborate on integrated studies of the near-shore and rocky-shore ecosystems of the western U.S. coast. PISCO is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Seaweb assists in communicating this research to the public.

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