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Our work in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean is critical. These ecosystems are home to seagrass communities, coral reefs and native terrestrial species that are essential to the survival of the environment and the animals that live there. We ensure that they are protected and recovering.

The Florida Keys and Caribbean contain unique terrestrial and coastal habitats in addition to seagrass communities and coral reefs. However, these habitats and the many endemic species they support are under threat from land use and climate change. For example, poor water management and rapid urban development are threatening the health of the 18,000 square kilometers of seagrass meadows in South Florida. And the increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms in the region has had devastating impacts on entire watersheds, from montane forests through mangroves to coral reefs.

A Recovery Effort

Over the years, Institute experts have provided essential data to water and land managers to ensure that the Florida Keys and Caribbean ecosystems are being managed to mitigate the many threats they face.

Our researchers continue to monitor water quality and plant and animal species on islands, coastlines and coral reefs throughout the region. We have been developing solutions to more sustainable management of the resources contained within these areas.

Ongoing Research

  • Seagrass Ecosystem Dynamics

    International Blue Carbon expert, Dr. James Fourqurean leads research on seagrass ecosystems in the Institute. He and his team has been monitoring seagrasses at 30 permanent sites and additional random sites across the coastal waters of South Florida since 1996 as part of the seagrass monitoring program for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). 

    Home to some of the largest seagrass meadows in the world, the FKNMS ecosystem provides critical resources to fish, reptiles, birds and marine mammals in the area. Over the last 25 years, our scientists have been studying seagrass to track changes in the environment over time, in particular changes caused by increased nutrient levels in nearshore waters. 

    Seagrass depend on nutrients for survival, but too much of these nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) causes other plants to appear and gradually replace the essential seagrass in the area. These studies can detect changes in seagrass meadows even before there has been any significant loss of this vital habitat. 

    Dr. Justin Campbell who studies global change biology at the Institute of Environment, examines how environmental drivers commonly associated with climate change (including warming temperatures, ocean acidification and tropicalization) influence the structure and function of seagrasses across local and regional scales. His team has recently established a network of 13 experimental sites in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, all examining how seagrasses distributed along a latitudinal gradient respond to multiple climate change stressors. This research sheds light on the current status of seagrasses in the Western Atlantic and further highlights some of the factors that may potentially contribute to seagrass resilience in the future. 

  • Sargassum & Harmful Algal Blooms

    Our algae experts, Dr. Ligia Collado-Vides and Dr. Thomas Frankovich, work on discovering and detecting alge in Florida Keys and Caribbean waterways.

    Citizen Science - Sargassum Watch

    Influxes of Sargassum (commonly known as seaweed) have been recurring events in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Florida, but abundance of those landings have increased since 2011. This poses issues for coastal ecosystems, local communities and economies dependent on them. To address this issue, a monitoring program was created by Collado-Vides and her students in September 2018 to quantify frequency and abundance of Sargassum landings in South Florida. Using the app Epicollect5, citizen scientists can upload information about the seaweed events they are expeirencing (including location, amount of seaweed, photo of seaweed, etc.). This data informs our scientists on how Sargassum is affecting our coastal areas. It allows our researchers to continue to monitor the invasions of pelagic Sargassum on Caribbean beaches and in the Florida Keys.

    Harmful Algal Blooms

    Our scientists are continually inspecting the waters of the Florida Keys and the Caribbean for signs of distress or concern. Using sensor technologies, our scientists are able to monitor water quality for the potential of excess nutrients that could lead to algal blooms.

    When a Red Tide plagued Florida beaches in October of 2018, Frankovich was one of the first to begin exploring the algae species. In so doing, he discovered another harmful algal species that had been present in the Florida Keys.

  • Coral Reef Restoration

    Our researchers are studying the impact that climate change is having on Florida Keys and Caribbean reefs. We are also looking towards solutions for restoring these essential habitats. 

    Using Crabs to Save Corals?

    Research from Dr. Mark Butler points to the Caribbean King Crab as a possible secret weapon to wiping out a killer algae invasion on coral reefs. This algae invasion smothers corals, reduces their growth and reproduction, and prevents establishment of juvenile corals. In the Caribbean, the calcareous green algae Halimeda is taking over many reefs. Few animals tolerate its taste and texture. The Caribbean King Crab is the exception.

    Coral Genes Might Save them from Climate Change

    Researchers in our Environmental Epigentics Lab led by Dr. Jose Eirin-Lopez have been studying coral genes for years. Recently, they've discovered that corals may have had the answers to saving themselves from climate change all along. Depending on the season, corals modified the activity of their DNA in order to adapt to changes in temperature and other conditions. This could prove life-saving when talking about impacts related to climate change. The phenomenon is called "environmental memory," and our scientists are digging deeper to better understand how these adaptation responses work.

  • Plant Biodiversity in the Caribbean

    The Caribbean islands are a biodiversity hotspot - a region hosting thousands of species, more often than not unique to their habitat. Increasing demand for plant resources, coupled with the threats of climate change, make the classification of these plants urgent as a foundation for conservation. Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega has been working in Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean biodiversity hotspots to provide research and education programs dedicated to protecting threatened plants.

  • Protecting Marine Life

    Moray Eels

    Institute scientists used a combination of video data from Global FinPrint - the world’s largest shark and ray survey - and environmental DNA analysis to conduct the largest study in the Caribbean on moray eel populations.

    Reef Fish

    Dr. Alastair Harborne studies the environmental impacts on reef fish in the Caribbean and Florida Keys. He dives into how climate change and other stressors affect reef fish ecology, behavior and physiology. Harborne also investigates the role that marine reserves play in protecting coral reefs and the fish that call these ecosystems home.

    Sharks and Rays

    Institute researchers study the predator-prey dynamics of sharks and rays. Scientists for years have known that sharks and rays are in trouble in many parts of the world, but no one really understood the severity or where the greatest problems existed. Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou works to protect historically targeted species for things like fin trading. He also helps lead Global FinPrint, through which our scientists have been able to monitor 371 reefs across the world, providing critical insight into the species that live there. This insight has been used to inform and implement conservation measures in the Bahamas, Belize and other threatened areas. 

Support Our Work

Your support helps us to protect the Florida Keys, the Caribbean and other ecosystems through collaborative efforts with communities.