Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Coral reef science: Inspiring awareness of the need to protect marine ecosystems

Research led by Professor Jörg Wiedenmann and Dr Cecilia D’Angelo at the University of Southampton’s Coral Reef Laboratory (CRL) has increased understanding and awareness of the importance of coral reefs, their critical status and opportunities to halt their decline. The CRL team’s active engagement has allowed the research to reach industrial partners, policymakers and the public on a national and global level.


Coral reefs form unique habitats that sustain the livelihoods of half a billion people and a third of all marine biodiversity.

Natural and human-caused disturbances impair the reefs’ symbiosis and threaten their survival. Understanding how corals respond to such stressors is a crucial component of the global effort to conserve these fascinating and life-sustaining organisms.

Coral Lab team and helpers at Science and Engineering Festival 2017
Coral Lab team and helpers at Science and Engineering Festival 2017

Research challenge

Research at Southampton’s Coral Reef Laboratory (CRL) has made significant contributions to the understanding of the roles of the coral host, its symbiotic mechanisms and the physico-chemical environment in shaping the response of reef corals to stress.

Policy engagement in the Middle East

CRL research in the Middle East has enhanced understanding of how corals tolerate high levels of environmental stress.

The research led to the founding of the Mideast Coral Reef Society in 2015 as a platform to communicate evidence to stakeholders. More than 280 representatives of academic and governmental organisations, NGOs and private sector companies are members.

Coral Reef Policy Workshop in Abu Dhabi 2017
Coral Reef Policy Workshop in Abu Dhabi 2017

Building on this success, in 2017 Wiedenmann and D’Angelo collaborated with the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) to analyse environmental monitoring data and present findings to the regional governments. EAD implemented Southampton’s recommendations to assess the quality of coastal waters using sensitive analytical techniques such as coral reef stations.

The aim is to eliminate the introduction of municipal wastewater in the sea by 2022.

Awareness-raising exhibitions

In 2019 CRL collaborated with sculptor Glenn Morris to deliver an artists’ educational workshop in Southampton with the aim of inspiring artwork depicting colour changes of stressed corals and communicating human impacts on coral reef survival.

Following COVID-related delays, the resulting exhibition, “BLEACHED”, will run at God’s House Tower, Southampton from 13 May to 5 June 2022.

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2017
Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2017

In 2018 an exhibit featuring research on coral fluorescence and the effect of nutrient pollution on reef survival was displayed at the Commonwealth Marine Science Event held in Southampton as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

UK Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey praised the “ground-breaking work”, and used the event to announce the UK’s signing of the Coral Reef Life Declaration, a global commitment to safeguard coral reefs.

CRL have also worked on exhibits at Chessington World of Adventures, London’s Horniman Museum, Southampton Boat Show, Southampton Science and Engineering Festival and the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. The latter, in 2017, was chosen by 51% of survey respondents as the ‘best exhibit on show’, with 100% leaving positive comments.

Industry collaboration on exhibition technology

Working with the Tropical Marine Centre London, the UK’s leading supplier of innovative aquatic equipment, CRL research on coral host pigments has enabled the development of an advanced near-UV aquarium lighting system for optimising the colour of coral. The product was launched in 2014, and over 2000 units have sold since.

The research also led to the licensing of a red fluorescent protein to Merck Millipore for integration in their life science research products.

Coral reef fieldwork in the Red Sea
Coral reef fieldwork in the Red Sea

Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

CRL findings featured in a MOOC, Exploring our Ocean, which ran four times over 2019-2020, attracting almost 7,000 participants from 128 countries.

A representative comment on the coral reef section reads: “Incredible. It makes me determined to do that little bit more to protect the oceans”.

Face-to-face education with live corals

Over 2014-2019, CRL brought living corals, yellow filter goggles and blue light torches to UK secondary schools to allow hands-on engagement with coral fluorescence.

Teachers described it as a “fascinating exploration into coral reefs which will make us all think about them differently”. A student stated: “I plan to try to be more eco-friendly and reduce my plastic waste, and also cut down on red meat consumption”.

Bleached Acropora coral
Bleached Acropora coral

High-profile media coverage and documentaries

Active media engagement by CRL has led their research to feature in the New York Times, IFLScience, Scientific American, The Independent, The Times, ABC News Australia and Naked Scientist.

Additionally, CRL research has featured twice on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science, and was a key component of the production of a BBC/Netflix series, Life in Colour with Sir David Attenborough, that took place in 2020.


Images credit: Professor Jörg Wiedenmann and Dr Cecilia D’Angelo.

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition Video 2017





Science-meets-Art collaboration to communicate coral bleaching

Share this case study Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo
Privacy Settings