Coral Culprits

Latest update July 23, 2019 Started on October 23, 2018

We are a team of scientist and students exploring the Florida Reef hunting for pathogens and parasites that threaten the corals.

Who are the microorganisms responsible for the deadly white plague? Where do they come from when are not infecting corals? How are they transmitted?

October 23, 2018
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We are excited to welcome a new member to our Coral Culprits expedition, Anthony Bonacolta, who will be starting his Ph.D. this Fall at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS) at the University of Miami. As part of the expedition, he will be analyzing the microbiomes of Caribbean coral in order to decipher potential players in coral disease.

Anthony graduated with honors from the University of Miami with degrees in Marine Science and Microbiology & Immunology. During his undergraduate studies, Anthony volunteered in the Cnidarian Immunity Lab at RSMAS where he did his senior thesis on the compartmentalization of the microbiome of the Starlet Sea Anemone, Nematostella vectensis. Anthony was also named a NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholar during his Junior year. As a Hollings Scholar, he interned at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, where he researched land-based microbial contamination of coral microbiomes along the Florida Keys Reef Tract. He presented his research at the NOAA HQ in Silver Springs, Maryland. After his internship, Anthony continued his work at NOAA analyzing the microbiomes of Caribbean corals, running water quality assays, and optimizing automated microbial source tracking qPCR protocols for public use. His first project at RSMAS will focus on deciphering microbial eukaryotes from the published metagenomes of different coral species.


On June 7th, we had the chance to take the Trident out to open-water rather than around the docks at RSMAS. Here, we adventured to Emerald Reef off the coast of Miami, practicing holding the ROV steady on coral colonies in ocean swell and current. Luckily the weather conditions were clear, and the sun was shining so the visibility was great. At times the feed was choppy (potentially operator error), however we still recorded some great footage that we wanted to share a bit of our first recorded open-water experience.

We hope you enjoy this short clip of Emerald Reef, a potential coral disease sampling location!

Over the weekend, Brad travelled to the Broad Key Marine Station on the Northeastern tip of the Florida Keys to explore several crucial next steps:

  • The research station, what it offers and sampling logistics.
  • What is the current state of the patch reefs? How much of the patch reef is covered in coral and what kind of species are present?
  • Is coral disease readily observable and easy to locate or do we require some extensive diving?

Here’s what he recorded:

  • The research station will provide space for us to bring our equipment and set up a small lab to view samples under an inversion microscope and furthermore flash freeze samples to bring back to RSMAS for DNA sequencing.
  • The current state of the patch reefs observed was grim. The live coral cover is roughly 6% of the reef with only a few hard coral species present that provides the 3D structure of the reef.
  • While no disease was easily identified, we believe we need to use SCUBA or the aid of an ROV to find coral disease efficiently because the coral cover is so low in this area.

Using an ROV will allow us to survey the patch reefs for signs of coral disease for sampling as opposed to diving haphazardly hoping to encounter coral disease. This will allow us to use our field time efficiently, as time in the field is usually very limited logistically and financially.

Should we encounter a disease while surveying with the Trident Open ROV, Brad can then enter the water using SCUBA, locate the disease and further collect samples of both the healthy and diseased coral tissue for further analysis.

More to come so stay tuned!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

While we continue to plan our Coral Culprits expedition, we have been going over the types of coral disease we will likely encounter and sample on the Florida Reef Tract. Recently a newer disease called stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) has emerged (first reported in 2014), sweeping the East Coast of Florida. Now outbreaks have been reported in various parts of the Caribbean, including St. Maarten, Jamaica, Mexican Caribbean, Dominican Republic, St. Thomas, and U.S. Virgin Islands. This new disease is affecting more than 20 coral species, including important reef-building corals, resulting in very high mortality rates. Unfortunately like many other diseases, there is no known causative agent for SCTLD.

With our goal to identify the microbe(s) causing various coral diseases, we will be focusing on SCTLD to help understand not only the origin, but also the ecology of this disease that is plaguing the Caribbean.

Photo by Melina Soto, Healthy Reefs Initiative.


This week we had a new member join our Coral Culprits expedition, Bradley Weiler, a Canadian biologist, ocean enthusiast, and now Open Explorer. Brad is finishing up his master’s degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland where he explored the bacterial members in association with deep cold-water corals. We are excited to announce that Brad is planning to start his Ph.D. in the spring here at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami exploring who the causative agent(s) are plaguing the Florida Reef and causing coral disease, where they come from, and how they’re transmitted.

Brad’s previous work from his undergraduate degree landed him in The Bahamas, where he was exploring coral reef health on the island of Eleuthera. Eleuthera, while considered a family island, is still a popular tourist destination and fishing hotspot. Unfortunately, tourism negatively impacts the local reefs and Brad’s undergraduate work looked at identifying reef health trends over 8 years of surveying. In addition, Brad and his team surveyed the local reefs for coral cover metrics, bleaching, and disease in conjunction with AGRRA, an organization focused on coral reef conservation.

We are excited to have Brad sharing his experiences with diving the Florida Reef and sampling disease during our NatGeo expedition. Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts, pictures, and videos.

Expedition Background

Coral reefs are beautiful and diverse ecosystems that harbor a myriad of marine species and that protect our coasts from erosion and supply food and natural products. Corals, the cornerstone and architects of the reefs, are threatened by global warming and by diseases outbreaks that are associated with the increase of the ocean waters temperature. While most of the coral diseases can be easily characterized by changes in coloration or tissue loss little is known about the causing agents of these diseases. So, we do not know what the targets are when fighting to protect our reefs against parasites and pathogens.

In this expedition, diving and using ROVs we will explore the Florida Reef looking for signs of disease in the corals with the intention to sample as many diseases as possible. Back to the laboratory, we will use molecular methods in order to identify bacterial and microeukaryotic organisms associated with the diseased tissue and compare them with the microbial organisms associated with healthy coral tissues. In parallel, we will proceed to the isolation of those microbes that are associated to diseased based on our molecular data in order to keep them in the laboratory to experiment with them in order to first prove they are indeed pathogenic, and second find the way to fight them back. The final goal of the expedition will be to characterize as many disease agents as possible and establish the basis to develop the tools to fight them.

The Florida Reef is a well-studied system and there is a lot of information about the different aspect of its ecology as well as on the health of the reef. Previous to start the underwater exploration of the different sites of the Florida Reefs my team will screen the available knowledge in order to determine what are the most common diseases that have been already reported there as well as those that are having the strongest impact in the reef ecosystem.


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