Interdisciplinarity in coral reef studies

Written by Carla Isobel Elliff

Coral reefs are very complex environments. They are built by organisms that secrete layers of aragonite, the mineral form of calcium carbonate that comprises the geological reef structure. This intricate three-dimensional structure slowly grows and become a home for about 25% of all species found in the oceans. Each of these species interact with each other and with the reef itself. An entire world filled with complex chemistry, biology, and geology; and don’t forget, this is all happening underwater! Better add some physics as well then.

With all these fields of knowledge interacting, how can we really study a coral reef from a single perspective?

The answer is we can’t. That is why interdisciplinarity has grown so much in the world of environmental sciences and the study of ecosystems as a whole.

However, most coral reef scientists are thought of, and think of themselves, as strictly marine biologists. Biology does indeed seem to be the most well-developed field in the study of coral reefs. For example, the scientific journal Coral Reefs, maintained by the International Society for Reef Studies, does not currently have a geological editor. I was recently informed of this and one of the reasons given for this situation is the overwhelming focus of relevant submissions on biology and ecology. However, this journal openly encourages submissions regarding reef geology and structure – so which expert is editing these?

Figure 1. Website of the scientific journal Coral Reefs, where a broad range of topics is listed within its publication scope, but biological and ecological papers are the majority of relevant submissions.

While it is great that we are answering our questions relating to coral reef biology, how can we expect to understand the complex world of coral reefs without answering those from other fields? Why aren’t these fields getting as much attention?

Partly because being interdisciplinary is difficult. From a young age we learn subjects in school as separate fields of knowledge. Few people can say they had teachers who were able to cross the boundaries between mathematics and geography, for example, making clear connections between the two. With researchers this compartmentalization of knowledge continues and can be even greater.

Biologists have “traditionally” studied coral reefs, so it is not uncommon for this ecosystem to be used as an example in teaching several general biology courses. Physicists on the other hand, will rarely have had this same opportunity, though they are trained with the tools necessary to understand reef hydrodynamics, for example. Remote sensing (for example of sea surface temperature anomalies) is all underpinned by physics – a good example of the power of bringing in other fields into the study of coral reefs.

Back in 2015, the scientific journal Nature published a special issue on why interdisciplinary research matters. There’s even a fun little quiz you can take to measure how interdisciplinary you are:

Among the big challenges listed in the issue that need an interdisciplinary approach is climate change. As coral reefs are, arguably, one of the ecosystems most affected by climate change, then an interdisciplinary approach is surely needed to understand how we can conserve them.  There’s increased ocean temperatures, acidification, phase shifts, and more intense and frequent storm surges… Any one of these impacts triggers complex responses! The answers we need on how to act to mitigate or avoid negative outcomes will come from various fields and researchers will have to learn to combine efforts to reach effective solutions.

Figure 2. Cover of the special issue of Nature drawn by Dean Trippe.

So how can we improve interdisciplinarity in our research groups or in our projects?

Communication. Talking to people is greatly underappreciated in academia. We spend our days in the lab working on our experiments or on our computers, usually too involved in our projects to properly interact with our peers. Weekly brainstorming meetings can be really inspiring and lead to interesting collaborations.

Different people have different strengths. We all bring something to the table and can contribute. Maybe you feel like the odd one out in your group, working on something different from the rest of your lab, but don’t isolate yourself because of that. Offer to help out any way you can (in the lab, in the field, reading someone’s draft paper) and you will see how much you learn and contribute with simple actions.

We are all capable of learning something new. Even if you are a PhD student already, maybe going back to an undergraduate class could open up your mind to new ideas. No one knows everything, and I don’t think anyone can. You do not have to become an expert in all fields, but a working knowledge of the field with which you interact can go a long way.

Keep an open mind. Scientists are trained to observe and experiment, learning from their findings. Your observations come through the lens of your own personal experiences. Try looking at your findings from a new perspective, what would you find?

Interdisciplinarity is difficult, but it basically comes down to seeing the big picture: why am I studying coral reefs? Even if you are working on a very niche aspect of coral reef science, by making this information more accessible you will be assisting interdisciplinary researchers achieve their goals of integrating fragmented information and bringing the bigger picture into focus.

Extra reading

Why does interdisciplinary research matter?


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