Carla Elliff wants to find the best strategies to help coral reefs fight climate change

Climate change is threatening coral reefs and their various ecosystem services, but some corals are coping better than others. Why? That’s what Research Pitching Competition 2019 finalist Carla Elliff from the Reefbank Project of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul wants to find out.


The core of your research idea is to understand which strategies could and should be used when trying to save reef-building corals. Why are you interested in coral reefs?

My background is in oceanography, so basically anything to do with salt water fascinates me! Coral reefs are very important ecosystems, more important than we realize. And right now they are very threatened by climate change. An estimated 40% of the world’s coral reefs have already died due to climate change, and most of the reefs we have left are not in good shape. 

Still we can see that some corals are stronger than others, and have better resilience to survive changing climate conditions. In my project I want to find out why some corals are coping better than others? I also want to explore the best strategies to conserve and restore reef-building coral species. There are a lot of ways to conserve coral reefs, for example growing a coral garden in a lab or cryopreserving their eggs and sperm for artificial reproduction purposes. However, we don’t still know which strategies are the best in general and in different locations. And that’s why we need more data on what makes a coral better at fighting climate change and how we can tap into this advantage.

What made you want to become a researcher?

I have always been very curious, ever since I was a child. I love questions and I think that has driven me to become a researcher. The environment offers so many questions and so little answers, and that intrigues me. When I was a child, my mum used to call me ecochata. It’s Portuguese and means a person who is always nagging about environmental issues. That’s me, I’m always complaining if someone doesn’t recycle or if they use plastic bags! While I have mostly changed the way I communicate about the environment, being an ecochata can work: nowadays my mum always recycles!

What is your wildest dream as a researcher?

I would like to see a future, where environmental issues are mainstream. Not something political or something only ecochatas like me preach about, but something everyone sees  as a part of the daily life. We are part of nature and part of the environment. My wildest dream as a researcher would be to change our perception of nature. 

Carla’s wild idea:

Everyone thinks their baby is special. I’m no different, except that I know for sure that my babies are special. My babies are corals and when they are ready, they will help save Brazilian reefs. Climate change is very much real and very much a threat to all sorts of ecosystems. Coral reefs have become a sort of poster-habitat for all the damages climate change can trigger: coral bleaching, disease outbreaks, ocean acidification making corals weaker and so on. However, among the rubble of a damaged coral reef are always a few corals that survive, that are somehow stronger. Several research organizations are focusing on how we can learn from these survivors. One option is to create coral gardens, as some call them, which are basically nurseries where coral babies are grown to later be replanted into a reef. This is a great helping hand for corals to fight climate change – especially if we can identify which babies are most likely to thrive under these conditions. However, there are other conservation options available, but we still do not have enough data to understand which strategy is best depending on local reality. In my project, I will be working with the first coral sperm and egg bank in the South Atlantic Ocean, the ReefBank Project, to understand what strategies in this field we can use for the main reef-building coral species in Brazil.

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