[Coral-List] Tommy Goreau's post on "More amazing "first" "discoveries" in coral reef science"

John Bruno jbruno at unc.edu
Sat Aug 25 19:48:28 EDT 2007

"Healthy coral reefs hit hard by higher temperatures.

Coral disease outbreaks have struck the healthiest sections of  
Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where, for the first time,  
researchers have conclusively linked disease severity and ocean  

Sea Technology, July 2007, p. 62

The article goes on to credit NSF, NIH,  and the University of North  
Carolina for this amazing "new" "discovery". Perhaps these are the  
same folks who just discovered, also "for the first time", that  
Pacific and Indian Ocean coral reefs were declining.

If these folks would only read the literature they would find that  
none of this is new.

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
Global Coral Reef Alliance
37 Pleasant Street, Cambridge MA 02139
goreau at bestweb.net

Tom, you seem to have gotten all worked up about thirdhand accounts on the internet of our two recent papers in PLoS journals.  But it seems clear that you haven’t read either one.  Maybe you too need to spend more time reading the literature, especially before you criticize it.  The folks in North Carolina include myself and my graduate student Elizabeth Selig (the GIS guru behind Reefs at Risk in SE Asia), Drew Harvell from Cornell, Ken Casey-a satellite oceanographer from NOAA, Bette Willis and Cathie Page from James Cook U, and Hugh Sweatman-the director of the AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program.  But of course, our collective knowledge of the literature is doubtless inferior to yours.  

In the first paper we used an epidemiological analysis to quantify the relationship between ocean temperature and outbreaks of white syndrome on the GBR.  The survey data were collected by AIMS and included six years of intensive monitoring on 48 reefs spread across 1,500 km.  The SST data came from an exciting new Pathfinder product, which provides high-resolution data at a grain of 4 x 4 km (compared to 50 x 50 km for the older products you worked on).  We found a strong relationship between the frequency of local temperature anomalies and the frequency of white syndrome.  Also, temperature-induced outbreaks only occurred on very high coral cover reefs (i.e, generally > 50%).

Before this study, there were certainly hints of an SST effect on coral disease severity.  We state in the paper; “The hypothesized link between anomalously high temperatures and coral disease outbreaks is supported by small-scale field studies indicating that prevalence and the rate of within-colony spread of several coral diseases are higher during the summer [24–30]. Such seasonal changes in disease severity could be driven in part by higher summertime temperature, but could also be caused by a variety of other abiotic factors that vary seasonally within sites.”

But until our PLoS paper and a related book chapter we published in your friend Al Strong’s book on coral reefs and climate change, there was no published evidence that population-level coral disease outbreaks (not including non-infectious bleaching) were linked to ocean temperature, especially at regional scales. There have been several reviews on this topic (e.g., Hayes et al. 2001, Harvell et al. 2002), and none of them have described or cited a similar study.  You mocked our findings in your post; “this amazing "new" "discovery".  If you know of another study that demonstrates this, please post the citation on the list server (sorry, but your own unpublished manuscripts don’t count). 

The second paper published earlier this month in PLoS One is a meta-analysis of 6001 surveys of 2667 Indo-Pacific reefs performed between 1968 and 2004.  It is an meta-analysis of data from hundreds of other published studies, so in fact we had to read a few papers on coral decline during the three years it took to build the database.  We certainly didn't claim in the paper to have “just discovered…"for the first time", that Pacific and Indian Ocean coral reefs were declining”, as you stated in your post.  I actually have not seen that quote or even a similarly worded point in any news accounts, so I assume you fabricated it, or perhaps more generously, you “misinterpreted” the point of our paper.  We were very clear in the paper that we (as in reef scientists) have known for decades that reefs around the world are in trouble.  In the paper we stated that “there is broad scientific consensus that coral reef ecosystems are being rapidly degraded [10,11]. Yet there is little published empirical information on regional and global patterns of coral loss [12] or the current state of reefs in the Indo-Pacific (Fig. 1)[13]…Many previous studies have documented mass coral mortality events and ecologically significant reductions in coral cover on particular reefs [15-19], throughout the Caribbean [12], and across the Great Barrier Reef [20,21].”

The purpose of our analysis was to quantify the loss of reef-building corals in the Indo-Pacific; when reef decline began, how fast is it occurring, and how severe and widespread it is.  Yes, we all knew that Indo-Pacific reefs were being degraded.  But Elizabeth and I wanted to quantify the rate of degradation (in terms of percent absolute coral cover and area) and how it varied in space and time at sub-regional and regional scales.  If you know of another published quantitative peer reviewed study (i.e., not anecdotal observations published on a blog) that has already done that, please post the citation on the coral list.  But I am pretty sure none of your father’s papers or your infamous work on coral-biting-parrotfish (and the “diseases” they cause) included this type of analysis.  

Finally, as many other people have posted on the list before, please provide citations when you make claims about important published literature of which only you seem to be aware, and that the rest of us fail to read and cite.  Otherwise, we’d have to take your word for it.  If all these mystery papers actually exist, then we could find them, read them, and improve our knowledge of literature (can you feel the sarcasm?). 

Literature Cited
Harvell, C. D., C. E. Mitchell, J. R. Ward, S. Altizer, A. P. Dobson, R. S. Ostfeld, and M. D. Samuel. 2002. Climate warming and disease risks for terrestrial and marine biota. Science 296:2158-2162.
Hayes, M. L., J. Bonaventura, T. P. Mitchell, J. M. Prospero, E. A. Shinn, F. Van Dolah, and R. T. Barber. 2001. How are climate and marine biological outbreaks functionally linked? Hydrobiologia 460:213-220.

John Bruno, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Marine Sciences
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3300
jbruno at unc.edu

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