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As many ecosystems on Earth, coral reef systems are facing the pressures of the Anthropocene. Several boundaries beyond which productive and functioning coral reefs are unlikely to prosper have been transgressed. Tens of millions of livelihoods that rely heavily on coral reefs, as well as biophysical Earth system processes are at risk. These challenges call for an urgent reform of traditional scientific approaches, policies, and coral reef management strategies. A pragmatic change in how we define and achieve the sustainability of the human-reef relationship is needed. The frontiers of established scientific paradigms, research protocols, and science divulgation methods should be probed, and revolutionary approaches applied to capture and respond to rapidly evolving issues.

The Reef Systems Workgroup started to consolidate on October 16, 2017. As it develops, it will contribute to the mission of the ZMT and the Leibniz Association by conducting scientific research that confronts the most pressing threats faced by tropical coral reefs. Our research rises to the challenge of sustaining coral reef integrity, biodiversity, and functioning. We view coral reefs as complex and dynamic systems that are profoundly connected to human actions (mediated by a global economy) and climatic changes. While these systems should be managed as service-based rather than extraction-based economies, conservation efforts aimed at securing the provision of services should not lag behind in efforts to avoid species extirpations or recover decimated populations.

Research within the Reef Systems work group is problem-focused, yet solution-oriented, and of applied relevance. It contributes robust scientific knowledge in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi targets stated in the Convention on Biological Diversity. This will allow for tangible bridges to be built between scientific excellence and high-level policy processes. Within the unique richness of disciplines congregated at the ZMT, the Reef Systems Workgroup forms productive research alliances to understand the intricate reef-human-climate links through a transdisciplinary lens. Our workgroup undertakes observational and experimental studies on tropical coral reefs, but also engages in the analysis of existing large datasets, and modelling approaches. We place a strong emphasis in making coral reef scientific knowledge reachable to the wide public.

Thematic focus of the working group  

Research themes within the Reef Systems workgroup include:  

  1. The impacts of major environmental and anthropogenic pressures on reef organisms, species assemblages, ecosystem functions, and fluxes between reefs and adjacent ecosystems.
  2. The influence of species’ morphology, behaviour, and life history on their ecosystem role and vulnerability to different stressors.
  3. Spatial and temporal patterns of coral reef vulnerability, resilience, and adaptability, and their drivers.
  4. Effectiveness of different management instruments in preserving coral reef biodiversity and function, as well as ecosystem services and human wellbeing.
  5. Rates of change and large scale spatial patterns of different facets of biodiversity of coral reefs.
  6. Human-reef system interactions that strengthen or weaken the sustainability of socioecological systems.

Joining the workgroup Reef Systems

This group is in its initial consolidation phase, and currently has no PhD students or postdocs.

If you are interested in becoming involved as a Master’s student, applying for a PhD position that can be funded through a scholarship, or engaging in a post-doctoral project funded through a fellowship, and your research interests align with the thematic focus of the group, contact the workgroup leader Sonia Bejarano (Diese E-Mail-Adresse ist vor Spambots geschützt! Zur Anzeige muss JavaScript eingeschaltet sein!).

The Reef Systems Workgroup is currently looking for a Student Assistant (HiWi). To see the full description of the position (available in English and German) click here.

Also, stay tuned for future announcements of fully-funded positions, which are expected to become available within the coming year.


Ongoing research projects include:

Assessing the changes in functional diversity of herbivorous fishes through time (Indonesia)
This project is the result of an ongoing collaboration among the Reef Systems Workgroup, WCS-Indonesia, (Shinta Pardede), and RARE-Indonesia (Stuart Campbell) first established within the Triple C project.

It aims to determine whether the biomass of nominally herbivorous fish and the functional diversity of this multifaceted group has changed over time in Karimunjawa National Park and Pulau Weh (Aceh) between 2006 and 2013. We ask whether local management instruments (e.g. no-take zones) and changes in the use of certain fishing gears play a significant role in moderating the magnitude and direction of the observed changes. Refining the functional characterisation of nominal herbivorous fishes beyond the broad functional groups (i.e. excavators-bioeroders, scrapers-small excavators, grazer-detritivores, and macroalgal browsers) is a key goal of this project.

Two publications summarising the results of this project are in preparation:
Bejarano S, Pardede S, Campbell S, Ferse SCA (in prep) Herbivorous fish rise as destructive fishing practice falls in an Indonesian marine park.
Bejarano S, Pardede S, Hoey A, Campbell S, Ferse SCA (in prep) Can local management promote functional redundancy and resilience to climatic disturbances?

Post-bleaching trajectory of branching corals and coral-fish associations inside and outside Fijian tabu areas
This project is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Reef Systems Workgroup and Reef Explorer Fiji (Victor Bonito) first established within the REPICORE project
This project has been tracking a 1-year experiment to investigate the changes undergone by branching coral colonies since their mortality followed the massive bleaching event in February 2016. The progressive colonisation of the coral skeletons by algae, as well as the changes in fish assemblages associated with the colonies have been documented using photo and video cameras, respectively. The analysis of videos and photos is ongoing and resulting data will be analysed over the coming months.

To feed or not to feed? The effects of artificial feeding on coral reef fish functions in the Aitutaki lagoon, Cook Islands
Feeding wild animals is a regular habit in ecotourism worldwide, with poorly-known consequences for ecosystem function. This project was led by Natalie Prinz to complete her Master’s degree in International Studies in Aquatic Tropical Ecology, and co-supervised by Dr. Sebastian Ferse. It aimed to determine the effects of a regular tourism practice (i.e. bread feeding) on the abundance and diversity of fish assemblages in the reef lagoon of Aitutaki (Cook Islands). Species with the highest and lowest affinity for artificial food were identified. Focusing on a corallivore (Chaetodon auriga) and a grazer-detritivore (Ctenochaetus striatus), changes in natural feeding behaviours resulting from artificial feeding with important implications for fish functions were documented. Miss Prinz recently presented her work at the Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Tahiti thanks to one of the CRIOBE travel grants. On October, 18, 2017 she will also present her results to the public and stakeholders in the Cook Islands with the support of the Ministry of Marine and thanks to the Kellner & Stoll foundation. A publication on this study is also in preparation.