February 1, 2012-January 31, 2014
Level of Access
The northern Patagonian fjords lie on the interface between the high Andes Mountains in the east and the South Pacific Ocean, formed thousands of years ago through erosive glacial activity and tectonic sinking. Around 12,000 years ago the icefields in the Chiloé Interior Sea began to open, leaving behind over 15,000km2 of fjords, channels and gulfs. The waters within the fjords are influenced by strong tides, large volumes of freshwater runoff, and upwelling of deep-ocean waters as well as steep climatic gradients from north to south. This dynamic environment has resulted in extremely high biodiversity and endemism, yet this region is one of the least studied areas of the world. It was just a few years ago that deep-sea corals were found inhabiting this region at unusually shallow depths (less than 10m) and in extremely high densities (greater than 1500 individuals per m2). One species in particular, Desmophyllum dianthus, is one of the most widespread hard corals in deep-sea habitats around the globe, yet there have been no ecological studies because of the difficulty in sampling at depths below traditional SCUBA sampling. Cold-water corals are important structural engineers, creating habitat for thousands of associated invertebrates and fish, forming the principle foundation of many benthic ecosystems. These shallow fjord communities present a unique opportunity to form baseline data on ecological and population processes, acting as an accessible window into a deep-sea ecosystem. In recent years environmental and anthropogenic pressures in the northern Patagonian fjord region have mounted (particular from intense salmon farming) leading to a situation where these unique ecosystems may be lost before they can be documented and fully understood. Reproduction is a fundamental ecological process for which every species on the planet needs to undergo to survive through time, and is essential information to understanding recruitment, recolonization, population connectivity and recovery from damage. This project will study the reproductive ecology of the primary cold-water coral in this region, D. dianthus. This project will leverage research funded through a National Geographic Global Exploration Fund grant to establish year-long monitoring sites in three locations within the fjords. RAPID funding from NSF will add a significant ecological study to the National Geographic study.
The delicate and unique coral-based ecosystem of these fjord systems are threatened by increased fishing, tourism and intensified logging in conjunction with climate change. This project will contribute to and understanding of how anthropogenic influences are affecting basic life history processes in an important habitat forming species in the region and will provide a basis for more in-depth studies of the region's benthic resources. The broader impacts also include undergraduate training through a 5 week internship to process samples in the Waller laboratory and a public outreach component consisting of a blog website, daily Twitter updates from the field from the PI's "Online Expeditions" site and National Geographic website coverage. This project will also foster international collaborative work with Chilean researchers from the Fundación Huinay, their intimate knowledge of these ecosystems is an integral part of this project. Samples will also be supplied to other collaborators for population genetics and paleo-climate analysis.
Waller, Rhian G., "RAPID: Natural Laboratories in the Chilean Fjords: Studying Reproduction and Development in Emergent Deep-Sea Corals" (2014). University of Maine Office of Research and Sponsored Programs: Grant Reports. 383.