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W&L Professor Publishes Journal Article in PLOS ONE Professor Lisa Greer’s article focuses on the survival of coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Lisa-Greer-scaled-scaled-512x400 W&L Professor Publishes Journal Article in PLOS ONE

Lisa Greer, professor of earth and environmental geoscience at Washington and Lee University, recently published an article in the journal PLOS ONE titled “Coral Gardens Reef, Belize: An Acropora spp. refugium under threat in a warming world.”

Greer is the lead author of the article, which is based on research conducted at a coral reef refugium in Belize from 2011 to 2019. A coral reef refugium is a site where endangered species of coral flourish. Specifically, Greer’s study examines Acropora cervicornis, or Staghorn coral, which seems to be thriving in Coral Gardens Reef in Belize despite 98% of the species having been decimated in the Caribbean since before 1970.

The overarching goal of Greer’s research is to understand how and why this particular environment is able to support the staghorn coral when other environments cannot. “The only hope for reefs is to understand the ones that work,” Greer said.

The paper focuses on the impact of temperature patterns on the Coral Gardens Reef and how changing temperature affects coral’s ability to survive in an environment. Greer’s research team has been closely monitoring the Coral Gardens Reef since 2011 and conducting annual surveys of live coral. The team noticed a sharp decline in living coral after 2016 and set out to determine what caused such a precipitous decrease that year. Greer’s team believes anomalous temperatures that year made the reef more susceptible to a passing storm.

This research provides a better understanding of what impedes coral’s ability to thrive and can provide a blueprint for the renewal and survival of coral in other reefs around the world. To this end, Greer and her team work closely with Fragments of Hope, a community-based organization in Belize focused on coral restoration efforts, including planting healthy coral on the reefs to rebuild the environment.

Greer is already working on the next phase of this research project and is encouraged by the direction the Coral Gardens Reef is taking. “We’re seeing a much more hopeful story, and we hope that continues this year,” Greer said. “We’re seeing that the coral is rebounding, and that’s not a story you’re seeing almost anywhere else in the Caribbean. We’re hoping the coral is in recovery now.”

W&L faculty, alumni, and undergraduate students have collaborated on the Coral Gardens Reef research project over the years, providing valuable opportunities for interdisciplinary research and field experience. Co-authors on this paper include Robert Humston, the John Kyle Spencer Director for Environmental Studies and professor of biology at W&L, and alumni Candice Stefanic ’15, Lauren McManus ’18, Ginny Johnson ’20 and Allen Curran ’62. Curran was Greer’s undergraduate thesis advisor and introduced her to the site in Belize. “He has been a mentor to me all my research life, and it’s fun to still collaborate with him,” she said.

All told, 42 W&L undergraduates have participated in the project over the years, completing their scuba certification and traveling with Greer for 8-10 weeks in the summers to conduct fieldwork in Belize. While some of the participating students have taken classes with Greer, some simply heard about the research opportunity through word of mouth, and Greer appreciates that students from a variety of departments have shown interest in joining the study. “It’s a great opportunity to get students interested in coral reefs and to introduce them to the earth sciences, plus it’s important for students to get experience with such a hands-on research process,” she said.

Greer, who serves as a core faculty member for the environmental studies department, has been with W&L since 2003. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Colorado College and her doctorate at the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

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