A musician-marine biologist duo using film to inspire conservation have stumbled across some very unusual urban corals in Miami. Their discovery could expand understanding of how reefs react to stress.
Picture a coral reef and, in your mind's eye, it will probably be located off a pristine, palm-fringed beach. But corals don't only inhabit such serenely remote waters.
The reefs around Miami have been there for hundreds of thousands of years. As the urban metropolis sprung up, they have continued to thrive, incorporating manmade structures — and even waste — into their aquatic kingdoms.
"Urban coral is the term that I coined to describe corals that are living on manmade infrastructure or the trash inside what is a dredged, manmade embayment which is what we have here in Miami," marine biologist Colin Foord told DW.
Foord is co-founder of Coral Morphologic, a laboratory that produces art and film highlighting the beauty of our planet's imperiled coral reefs. He and musician Jared McKay want to inspire even those of us who have never seen one in the flesh to connect with coral reefs, and protect them.
At the same time, their study of the urban corals on their doorstep in Miami has put them at the vanguard of some serious science.
A complex relationship
For Foord and McKay, our species' relationship with corals is a close and complex one that cannot be explored through science alone.
Corals are invaluable to humans, providing jobs in tourism, hosting fish populations and protecting shorelines. They also leave us in awe of their otherworldly beauty.
"The way that coral morphologic looks at coral, a world without healthy coral reefs is not a world in which humans are going to be able to be fully happy," Foord says.
Coral Morphologic use state-of-the-art techniques to film coral. They have shared these images as projections on buildings, printed on booths and bus-stops around Miami, and collaborated on music videos for Arcade Fire and Animal Collective.
Hybrid super coral
Along the way, they also stumbled across some fascinating new developments on their local reefs.
Multiple species of brain corals grow along the causeway that connects downtown Miami to Miami beach. But one day Foord noticed something new.
"I was snorkeling inside the city and I came across this highly unusual stony coral that I had never seen before, an extremely rare form of the coral," he says.
"Both of its parents are endangered species, and have produced this hybrid coral — I've been diving in and around Florida for decades and had never seen this. And here it is, growing on a manmade seawall in this shipping lane."
Foord found these hybrid corals were surviving with little sign of stress through unusually cold snaps, and exceptional warm spells that saw coral reefs in the Florida Keys and elsewhere suffer severe die-off.
Miami's Biscayne Bay covers over 400 square miles, stretching from the north of the city all the way to the top of the Florida Keys to the south. Its chemistry has gradually changed over the last century from brackish to more saltwater, due to manmade changes to water flow, dredging, and rising sea levels.
We know how long the urban corals that grow here have been around, Foord says, because the manmade structures they're growing on are relatively new. "Most of them have probably settled within the last 25 years."
All this makes the bay a kind of giant laboratory when it comes to examining how corals colonize a new area — an area that includes additional challenges from the chemical cocktail of urban run-off, sewerage leaks and silt.
With increasingly hot Florida summers, temperature stress and disease have almost wiped out corals offshore. But inside the city's bays and canals, brain corals have somehow survived — even under the added duress of pollution.
Bringing together art and science
Foord is now working with a team of marine biologists at Florida International University to find out why. He believes the Biscayne Bay corals show that some species can adapt to detrimental conditions — perhaps offering a glimmer of hope for threatened reefs around the world.
Meanwhile, Coral Morphologic continues to explore coral reefs through art, too.
McKay creates the unusual soundtracks to their films using underwater microphones, sampling and manipulating natural and synthetic sounds.
"Essentially, Colin and I will create a set — just like any other movie — with what we want to film inside of it," McKay explains, "and at that point I figure out if I can get a sample out of it. If the crab is eating or something then there will be a sound I will use in the soundtrack."
McKay and Foord bonded in their youth over a shared love of punk music. Now, they're bound together by their belief that with corals' future survival so closely tied to human activity, exploring them aesthetically and emotionally can be as important as scientific inquiry.