Underwater Eden: Dispatches from Northeast Brazil

The vast Amazon rainforest teeming with exotic animals. Beautiful, bronzed people basking on white-sand beaches. Carnival-goers sipping lime-and-sugar-infused Caipirinhas while swaying to the rhythms of samba. Brazil is known for many things, but the country only recently is gaining recognition for one of its most important natural treasures: its coral reefs.

Coral communities worldwide are suffering from diseases, pollution and global warming, but Brazil’s reef system is one of the few that has managed to escape noticeable damage – at least for now. Researchers at Penn State, the University of Georgia, and Universidade Federal de Campina Grande are embarking on a quest to document the uniqueness of Brazil’s coral species by studying the symbiotic algae that they require to survive. In addition, they will investigate the evolutionary biology of the coral-algal symbiosis to see if they can uncover secrets about the organisms’ ancient histories and their potential to withstand the ravages of climate change.

For 10 days in November, the scientists will swim along the reef-line – that border between the protected inner shore and the high seas – taking biopsies of coral tissue that contain the symbiotic algae. They then will analyze the samples in a laboratory. The team’s expectations for identifying unique combinations of coral and algae are high. After all, the region is celebrated for its abundant, endemic sea life, including over 14 species of sharks; the scientists are keenly aware of the need to watch their backs while they work on the ocean bottom.

Team member Sara LaJeunesse, a freelance science writer, will be sending regular dispatches on the expedition’s progress. Join her as she and her teammates explore Brazil’s underwater Eden.

Stay tuned for dispatches and photos from Salvador, Recife and João Pessoa in the coming week! Brought to you by Research/Penn State magazine.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010