From the Field

Meet the NatureNet Fellows: Joleah Lamb

Joleah Lamb, NatureNet Science Fellow. Photo courtesy of Joleah Lamb.

NatureNet Fellow Joleah Lamb loves to sail, loves the ocean. So of course she loves to study coral reefs for…wait, why again?

“Disease,” says Lamb with a laugh. “I always loved the ocean, but I also have what might be considered an abiding — but ghoulish — interest in disease. ”

Seem counterintuitive? It won’t when you learn that coral is being decimated by disease worldwide — nasty stuff like white band disease that can kill or cripple corals. Lamb, though, lit up at the prospect of researching this stuff.

“It was like something clicked for me,” says Lamb, a former clinical researcher for pharmaceutical companies who also studied neurobiology as an undergrad at the University of Oregon. “I hate to say it was my lucky day because disease is awful, but I suddenly had everything I loved to study and learn about in one place.”

Lamb rushed off to the University of Queensland to get her Ph.D. in reef studies. And now her NatureNet Fellowship gives her the opportunity to explore the connection between people, corals and disease full-time.

“It’s such a rare opportunity,” she says, “to find a program that tackles real-world conservation issues from the front lines. I like to work on projects that have clear applications to improving things: problem-based research that offers science-based ways to make things better.”

How Tourism Might Contribute to Coral Disease Outbreaks

For instance: One of Lamb’s chief research collaborations at the University of Queensland revolved around studying what was causing coral disease in certain parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Her investigation into that question led her to study how reef tourism operations – which had the good intention of preventing damage in the wider park by designating areas specifically for tourist concessions — might be contributing to disease outbreaks in coral.

A coral with white band disease. "Whitebanddiseasecoral". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia .
A coral with white band disease. “Whitebanddiseasecoral”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

What do you have when large groups of people are swimming and diving in specific areas? Lots of cleaning chemicals and sunscreens, and even nutrients from bird guano—just some of the vectors of disease Lamb found by developing disease and water monitoring protocols and leading surveys across more than 1,400 km of the reef.

Her study of tourism operations – published in Conservation Biology – led to several immediate and important management changes in the marine park.

By installing inexpensive gutters and other systems under tourist platforms, managers could now stop the flow of sunscreen and other types of runoff from pouring onto and damaging the reefs below.

Identify the problem. Solve the problem.

“Of course, it’s never that easy,” notes Lamb, “but what that whole project shows is that we can identify problems and we can make changes. The process for solving problems is pretty straightforward, we just need to figure out how to do it at bigger and bigger scales.”

Next Up: Indonesia’s Corals and Their Disease

It’s that sense of scale and opportunity that has Lamb looking to Indonesia for her Fellowship. “In developing nations surrounded by coral reefs – like Indonesia,” she says, “more than half of the communities rely on reef fish as a significant source of animal protein. So healthy reefs are obviously the foundation of the food supply.”

But on highly populated islands, like many of those in Indonesia, runoff contaminated with sewage can make both people and reefs very sick.

“My NatureNet research is focusing on studying if an how natural filtration methods – like healthy seagrass beds and mangroves – can mitigate diseases that affect people and corals,” said Lamb. “For example, mangroves have been shown to naturally buffer water from harmful land-based metal contamination and a marine bivalve successfully filtered avian influenza virus from water.”

But what has attracted Lamb’s interest is that in addition to filtering mechanisms, such as stabilizing fine sediments, seagrasses may have several characteristics that could potentially moderate harmful human and coral bacteria, such as strains of enterococcus that can cause serious disease in people.

“Seagrasses have many well-documented benefits: they mitigate nitrogen and phosphorus, and seagrass extracts have been experimentally shown to kill or inhibit several human pathogens that are found in sewage,” says Lamb.

But despite these potential mechanisms for moderating pathogens in coastal waters, there have been no studies that have looked at whether seagrasses reduce levels of bacteria that are known to cause diseases in humans and coral reefs.

“That’s worthy of serious scientific research and collaboration,” says Lamb. “So if you want to catch up with me in the next two years, look for me in Indonesia. I can’t wait.”

Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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