In the waters of the Florida Keys, just above the ocean floor, a young woman raises a hammer and strikes the head of a steel bar. The force of the blow drives her backward. She struggles to regain her position and strikes again. And again. Finally, she’s satisfied that it’s securely in place, holding down a PVC frame on the ocean floor. However, there are at least 40 more steel bars to slam home before she and her team can call it a day.
VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA
In so many ways, it’s a long journey from the foothills of the Appalachians to the seas of southern Florida.
Kylie Smith has made the trek many times and knows the way all too well. She has been donning scuba equipment and plunging into the salt water of the Florida Keys for the past six years as she completed her master’s degree and is now finishing the research for her Ph.D. She has spent hundreds of hours studying the exotic creatures that inhabit coral reefs, measuring fish abundance, testing water quality and acidification levels, and also transplanting fragments of coral and recording their rates of survival and growth. Her experiences have changed her — as a scientist and as a person.
Coral reefs represent some of our oldest and most diverse ecosystems. They cleanse the oceans and provide habitat and food to more than one million species. They even help protect shorelines from erosion by lessening wave height and force. But this invaluable natural resource has been in precipitous decline for the past 30 years. Marine biologists consider these reefs to be the most critically imperiled ecosystem on the planet. There are a variety of reasons, but the chief culprit is believed to be multiple stresses associated with climate change. Corals thrive in a narrow temperature range, about 75-86 degrees Fahrenheit. When water temperatures rise above 86 degrees for extended periods, corals become more susceptible to disease, competition, predation and mortality.
This decline has not gone unnoticed. In the Florida Keys and elsewhere, several organizations are transplanting coral fragments by the tens of thousands in hopes of restoring existing reefs and creating new ones. But most of the transplants fare poorly, simply because what is causing them to deteriorate remains insidiously in place.
During her time underwater, Smith has grown to love the corals. But after watching them suffer, she is more determined than ever to find ways to turn the tide. Her research has become not just a career goal, but a life’s calling.
“Your blood, sweat and tears go into these projects. It becomes a personal thing, because you’re spending all your time returning to the same sites and watching something that you love wither and die,” she says. “But sometimes you find something unexpected that gives you hope, and it restores your motivation.”
FROM HERE TO THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Marine biologists don’t always end up living near the ocean. Michael Childress spent part of his career at Idaho State University, about a four-day drive from the Florida Keys.
But before his stint at Idaho State, Childress began doing underwater research in the Keys in 1991 when he was a graduate student at Florida State University. That’s when his passion for this wondrous string of tropical islands first consumed him. Childress knew that he didn’t want to stay in Idaho forever, so when a faculty position became available at Clemson, he was quick to take it. Tigertown isn’t exactly a stone’s throw from the Conch Republic, but it’s a whole lot closer than a state famous for its potatoes.
An evolutionary behavioral ecologist whose research focuses on understanding how marine animals respond to habitat loss, Childress joined Clemson in 2001 and is now an asscoiate professor in biological sciences. Two of his main courses — Marine Ecology and Behavioral Ecology — are thriving despite the University’s relative lack of resources dedicated to marine science. In addition, he teaches a Creative Inquiry undergraduate research course on the Conservation of Marine Resources.
“This invaluable natural resource has been in precipitous decline for the past 30 years. Marine biologists consider these reefs to be the most critically imperiled ecosystem on the planet.”
Over the past 15-plus years, Childress and his students have managed to make dozens of trips to the Keys to study spiny lobsters, blue crabs and anemone shrimp. They’ve helped finance these trips by doing everything from using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant awards to holding bake sales.
Smith began working with Childress in 2010. After earning her bachelor’s in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, she came to Clemson first as a research assistant and then as a master’s student. When Childress and Smith began to discuss her research options, Smith mentioned that she was interested in studying corals.
“I didn’t work on corals,” Childress recalls. “So, when Kylie said that she wanted to do a project about corals, I told her that, at least at first, it would have to be related to some aspect of animal behavior. Because that’s what my lab at Clemson does. Eventually, we decided that Kylie would begin by studying the effects of parrotfish populations on the health of coral reefs.”
Parrotfish are herbivores, and one of their favorite foods is macroalgae that compete with coral for nutrients and space. Smith’s initial research tested the hypothesis that coral decline was due to harmful macroalgae growing out of control due to a loss of reef herbivores. But she found no strong evidence that coral was being inhibited by macroalgae overgrowth or being rescued by parrotfish eating it. This became the subject of her master’s thesis, which she defended in 2015.
Childress’s Creative Inquiry class has functioned as a research team for Smith in her master’s and doctoral work. The composition of the class changes a bit from semester to semester, but these students have traveled back and forth to the Keys, become dive-certified and participated in almost every facet of Smith’s research. Childress has mentored Smith, and Smith in turn has mentored these undergraduate students who have caught her passion for the world underwater.
Smith’s early research taught her many things about coral reefs. For instance, different species of corals seemed to have different sensitivities to warm-water conditions, which can cause coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching, which results when corals expel algae that reside in their tissues. Corals can survive bleaching events, but the accompanying stress often results in widespread damage.
“Looking at the interactions that have been taking place between these organisms had been the foundation of my research,” Smith says. “But we’ve had other offshoots. We’ve looked at the effects of overharvesting of fish. We’ve looked at how differing water quality can influence some of these relationships. And we’ve monitored how changes in temperature can influence coral growth.”
In 2013, Smith conducted her first coral restoration study. She and her team transplanted 84 coral fragments on seven reefs throughout the Middle Keys. What happened next proved to be a hard lesson in coral sensitivity. She witnessed firsthand that prolonged periods of higher-than-normal water temperature can cause coral bleaching and mortality in both transplanted and native corals.
“Childress has mentored Smith, and Smith in turn has mentored these undergraduate students who have caught her passion for the world underwater.”
“In 2014 and 2015, we had intense warming during the fall months, and that triggered major bleaching events across the Caribbean, including here in the Keys,” Smith says. “Some of the corals we had transplanted showed signs of bleaching, while others didn’t. But by following our corals, we saw that they seemed to recover more quickly and be more resilient in 2015 than they had been in 2014. And so, we think that there might be some local acclimatization going on. This could mean that corals that have previously experienced high temperatures are better able to resist bleaching the next time they occur.”
What Smith learned between 2013 and 2015 prompted her to broaden her focus to include a wider range of interactions in the coral reef community. In 2016, she began to devise a structured-equation model that could be used to predict the best conditions for coral transplant success. Her hope was that environmentalists who might eventually follow this model would be able to increase survival rates. To test her model, Smith picked out eight near-shore and offshore reefs in the Middle Keys that differed in structure and composition.
In early 2017, the final phase of her doctoral research began.
Kylie is my granddaughter and I am so proud of her and her accomplishments. This documentary and videos gave me an insight that I otherwise could not have known. Kylie is also my roommate and I think more than most I know how dedicated she is and how hard she works every day. I am confident that her commitment will make a difference to all of us.
Just wanted to take a minute to thank Kylie and Michael for the important work they are doing for our reefs. I have been in Clemson for almost 30 years but was born in Miami. I have spent time in the Florida Keys and was certified to scuba dive right before I moved to Clemson, but still have had the opportunity to dive and snorkel in the Keys on several occasions. It is an amazing and wonder-filled world down there and the importance of saving our sea ecosystems can’t be stressed enough. If y’all need a cook for any of your trips please feel free to contact me. My mom was Cuban and I have a few recipes that I’m sure y’all would love! Thanks again for your research and efforts!