Madeleine’s research focuses on three areas: the potential of reef corals to acclimatize and adapt to climate change, connectivity and population structure, and the evolution of biodiversity. It includes the fields of population genetics, evolutionary and quantitative genetics, ecological genetics, and coral ecology and physiology, and combines field and lab based approaches. Most of my work involves reef corals and their algal symbionts as well as box jellyfishes and some other marine taxa.
Coral reefs have suffered long-term decline due to a range of anthropogenic disturbances and are now also under threat from climate change. The scleractinian (stony) corals deposit the structural framework that supports and promotes the maintenance of biological diversity and complexity of coral reefs, and as such, are major components of these ecosystems. The success of reef-building corals is related to their obligate symbiotic association with dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium. These one-celled algal symbionts (zooxanthellae) live in the endodermal tissues of their coral host, provide most of the host’s energy budget and promote rapid calcification. Furthermore, zooxanthellae are the main primary producers on coral reefs due to the oligotrophic nature of the surrounding waters. In this seminar I will present examples from genetic research conducted in my lab, some of it in collaboration with others, to understand (1) the significance of zooxanthella diversity in terms of physiological acclimatization of corals, (2) the adaptive potential of corals to climate warming, and (3) the potential for recovery through immigration.
In writing about his theory of coral reef formation Charles Darwin was also faced with a second challenge. He was writing during a time when very little was known about coral reefs and coral reef formation, but a great deal was imagined. Scientific arguments and publications were comprehensible to a much wider range of the public than they are now, scientific reputation was not yet so tightly tied to the publication of original research, and the image of the intrepid, voyage–making naturalist had become familiar—as had the image of the romantic coral reef. Consequently most of the information that people, including many scientific authors, had been given about coral reefs had been supplied by imaginative texts that extolled the exotic aesthetic and moral characteristics of coral reefs. When Darwin presented his innovative theory of coral reef formation, he was writing about a subject that had captured the interest and imagination of both the scientific community and the broader public. He was bringing science to a subject that had, for the most part, been held as the stuff of fantasy.