Newswise — The harvesting of a Caribbean soft coral off the coast of the Bahamas for use in a popular beauty product is providing a University at Buffalo marine biologist with an extraordinary experimental opportunity to answer fundamental questions about the ability of corals to survive environmental challenges.

The research will help marine biologists better understand whether new "recruits," the very youngest corals, originate from local or distant adult populations, providing critical information about which undersea environments play a larger role in protecting future generations of corals.

One of the key questions confronting marine biologists is what happens to the coral larvae that float in the water before they find a reef on which to settle and grow, according to Howard Lasker, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences in UB's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Do the larvae travel 10 feet before finding a place to grow or one mile or a hundred miles?" he asked.

The answer, Lasker explained, lies in an experiment that he said no self-respecting scientist could ever undertake since it would involve removing all the animals from a huge area in order to see how that might affect the arrival of the larvae.

But the fact that the soft coral Lasker is studying, Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae, contains a compound that is being harvested for use in Estee Lauder's "Resilience" cosmetics line, turns out to be an experimental bonanza, he said.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded him a $420,000 grant to study recruitment of this gorgonian soft coral against the backdrop of the harvesting being done by Bahamanian fishermen.

"The harvesting provides us with ideal circumstances under which we can determine if most of the larvae coming into an area are coming from distant or nearby reefs," he said.

Lasker explained that a small group of these fishermen in the Bahamas, working under government guidelines about how much coral they can gather, collect the gorgonians by cutting away branches from colonies on the sea floor. The pseudopterosins -- the compound of interest to the beauty industry -- are then removed from the branches and sold.

Starting in November, Lasker's research group will conduct dives in areas where the collection history is well-known, based on the records of the fishermen.

The UB researchers will compare the number of larvae coming to areas where there are few reproducing colonies to areas where there are many.

"From this, we hope to better understand whether it is local or distant environmental factors that influence recruitment," Lasker said, "which, in turn, will help us answer the much larger question about whether dead reefs are dead forever, or whether they can recover. It's a fundamental question that may be applicable to recruitment in any coral species."

The research also will help determine how harvesting is affecting this species.

Lasker says that his research, now in press in Invertebrate Biology and Biology Bulletin, has identified factors that control specific branching patterns in these corals after harvesting and shows that clipped or harvested colonies have not seen a marked negative effect in terms of their growth.

"Our results show that indeed you can clip the colonies and they will grow back at the same rate as before the harvesting," he said.

"By leaving some of the colony behind, the animal is able to re-grow and can again be harvested after several years," he said.

He noted that in some cases, there may even be faster growth after clipping since the ones that grow back have more branches.

Still, he added, the most fundamental piece of the puzzle that has yet to be determined concerns what impact the harvesting has on the entire population of these corals and its long-term ability to survive.

"To find out, we need to know what influences recruitment -- the ability of the tiny larvae of the coral animals to settle on a reef, and we need to know where those animals come from," he said. "If the larvae come from some distance away, then this species and the reef community are more likely to recover from harvesting and from catastrophic events, but it also makes the survival of the community more sensitive to what's happening further upstream."