The University of Southampton

SOES3053 Understanding Coral Reefs

Module Overview

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

1) To introduce students to the central concepts that underlie the functioning of coral organisms and reef ecosystems. 2) To recognise the physiological and ecological mechanisms that underpin the adaptation of corals and reef communities to specific and changing environmental conditions. 3) To understand the value of coral reefs in providing ecosystem services to human societies and the threats that anthropogenic impacts impose on reefs and their capacity to deliver these services. 4) To evaluate opportunities for knowledge-based coral reef conservation strategies and influencing policy makers

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • LO1. To summarise the environmental conditions that underpin coral reef habitats. LO2. To identify the main organisms that build coral reefs. LO3. To explain the central physiological characteristics of symbiotic corals and their significance for adaptation to different environmental conditions. LO4. To organise information relevant to the survival of corals and other reef organisms and present them effectively in graphical and written form. LO5. To identify corals and main reef organisms based on morphology and quantify areas of coral cover applying specialist software for image analysis of reef transects. LO6. To evaluate the challenges imposed by climate change on coral reefs and the potential for local mitigation strategies. LO7. To debate about the significance and rationale behind efforts for marine conservation, considering the effects of differential environments on coral reef ecosystem functioning


The module will focus on tropical coral reefs, benthic marine habitats created by the habitat-founding species, most important, by calcifying organisms such as scleractinian corals. Through dedicated lectures and practical work students will develop skills in identifying major reef building corals and understand how they interact with other species to form coral reefs. They will examine how oceanographic conditions, the complex nutrient cycling processes and the symbiotic associations make coral reefs hot spots of primary production in otherwise oligotrophic oceans, the basis of the longstanding Darwin Paradox. Students will value the ecosystem services offered by coral reefs such as coastline protection, sheltering of other important ecosystems such as seagrass beds and mangroves, sustaining fisheries, ornamental trade and tourism, and being a source for biopharmaceuticals. Using research-led examples, emphasis will be placed on the in-depth study of the physiology of corals and their symbionts, providing the knowledge basis that is required to understand the responses of reef organisms to their environment, and their capacity to adapt to different reef habitats and geographical regions. Students will assess how coral reefs are threatened at the local scale by overfishing, destructive coastal development and eutrophication and how climate change imposes stress on coral reefs at the global scale, exposing them to ocean warming and acidification. The students will integrate and apply the knowledge acquired during the course to evaluate how temperature, light and nutrient stress can lead to a breakdown of the vital symbiosis between the corals and their algal partners that manifests as coral bleaching. They will analyse the potential consequences of coral bleaching such as coral disease outbreaks, die-offs and ecosystem phase-shifts that can lead to loss of ecosystem functioning. Finally, presentations of case studies by guest speakers will discuss the breath of coral reef–related research at the University of Southampton. Topics include for instance coastal management practices, artificial reefs, climate change and sea level rise and the use of coral skeletons as archives for past climate conditions and historical reef ecology.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures: A series of core lectures will introduce and analyse central aspects of coral reef biology, ecology and biogeochemistry, including the physiological functioning of symbiotic reef corals and the implications for adaptation and evolution of reefs under the influence of changing environmental conditions. Case Studies: Research-centred topics of relevant interest will be covered by lectures given by guest speakers discussing their topical research carried out in Southampton and in collaborating institutions Practical sessions in coral reef biology and monitoring 1) Coral Taxonomy: A laboratory-based practical dedicated to the identification of corals at the genus and species level. 2) Coral Ecology and Reproduction: Insights in coral aquaculture and the potential for research and conservation strategies. 3) Coral Reef Monitoring: A software-based practise of reef assessment, including coral/reef organisms id, definition of coral cover in different reef settings and under varying environmental conditions

Independent Study110
Total study time150


Assessment Strategy

Assessment Method Include duration of exams, whether the assessment is formative or summative and whether there are any elements that must be passed for successful completion of the module. (1) Theory Assessment (1hour). A set of problem-solving and discussion questions to evaluate accomplishment of LOs 1, 2 and 3. (2) Practical Assessment. To demonstrates achievement of LO4. (3) Final Assessment: Submission of a written document (maximum 5 pages, excluding list of references) based on the discussion of relevant scientific literature. (Evaluates accomplishment of LOs 5, 6, 7).


MethodPercentage contribution
Assessed Practicals 30%
Final project 40%
Theory examination 30%
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