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Emma Kennedy

Research Interests

My main interest is in coral reef ecology, with particular focus on Caribbean scleractinian corals. As well as using molecular techniques to explore symbiont and host diversity in corals across the Caribbean, I model the effects of climate change on the health of coral reefs: specifically the important balance between bioerosion and framework construction. This balance determines the creation of three-dimensional spatial complexity - ultimately responsible for reefs harbouring high levels of biodiversity and other ecosystem services. I also help teach on an undergraduate coral reef field-course, and am a committee member for the Reef Conservation UK annual conference.

Past research

Previous work includes research on reef-generated noise in Panama, in collaboration with Dr Steve Simpson at Bristol University, and Dr. Hector Guzman at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute . Together we demonstrated that healthy reefs in the Las Perlas archipelago with more living corals and fish generate predictably greater levels of biological noise. This has important implications for understanding the behaviour of larval fish, and provides an exciting new approach for monitoring environmental health by listening to reefs.
Before beginning my PhD project at Exeter, I worked in the Caribbean (Honduras and Cuba) for the scientific organisation Operation Wallacea, teaching coral reef ecology and training undergraduate researchers in the collection of long-term monitoring data. 

Current Project

My PhD focuses on the topic of climate change and reef health, with my research following two connected strands:

  1. Caribbean reef carbonate budgets: past and future. My project looks at carbonate budgets – a measure of the net accumulation of calcium carbonate reef framework, based on the balance between bioconstructive (e.g. coral colonisation and growth) and bioerosive (e.g. sponge boring) processes – of Caribbean coral reefs. I am using theoretical modelling to explore the possible causes and consequences of region-wide degradation of reef structure over the last 50 years, and its association with recorded environmental pressures and predicted changes on future reefs.
  2. Caribbean-wide symbiont diversity in a reef building coral. I am investigating the diversity of dinoflagellate endosymbiont communities in the tissues of Montastraea annularis, an important – and endangered – reef building coral in the Caribbean. The survival and growth of the M. annularis host relies on nutrition provided by the algal symbionts (known as zooxanthellae, genus Symbiodinium). Symbiodinium demonstrate sensitivity to environmental settings such as light, temperature and water chemistry, and under extreme conditions communities may be reduced, damaged or lost, causing corals to ‘bleach’. If zooxanthellae are not replaced or regenerated, bleached corals will die. Coral bleaching is currently one of the greatest causes of mortality in the Caribbean, having increased in frequency and intensity over the last 30 years. Previous research has demonstrated that some Symbiodinium clades show resilience to temperature change, and are known to infer resilience to bleaching to their coral hosts.  M. annularis are reported to host a variety of algal symbiont cladal types, yet the diversity of community assemblages has not been documented over a wide-geographic range. My project uses a non-coding region of ribosomal DNA called ‘ITS2’ to identify the composition of zooxanthellae communities down to sub-cladal level, in small samples of M. annularis from 45 sites across the Wider Caribbean region, from Barbados to the Bahamas. Spatial patterns of diversity across the region will then be compared to environmental factors (including regional SSTs, aragonite saturation state, salinity), region, and host genotypes, based on six microsatellite markers.

My PhD is supervised by Dr Jamie Stevens (Exeter) and Prof. Peter Mumby (University of Queensland, Australia). The project is part of a collaborative integrated research project, the FORCE project that aims to integrate scientific and social approaches to manage Caribbean coral reefs in the face of climate change.


Harborne, A.R., Mumby, P.J., Kennedy, E.V. & Ferrari, R. Biotic and multi-scale abiotic controls of habitat quality: their effect on coral reef fishes. Marine Ecology Progress Series 437, 201-214 (2011).

Kennedy, E.V., Holderied, M.W., Mair, J.M., Guzman, H.M. & Simpson, S.D. Spatial patterns in reef-generated noise relate to habitats and communities: Evidence from a Panamanian case study. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 395, 85-92 (2010).

Conference Proceedings

Kennedy, E.V., Perry, C.T. and Mumby, P.J. 2010. Caribbean reefs in a changing environment: modelling carbonate budget responses to environmental change. European International Society for Reef Studies, Wageningen, Netherlands, December 2010

Kennedy, E.V. and Mumby, P.J. 2009. Balancing the budget: An overview of carbonate accretionary and erosional processes on coral reefs (poster). Reef Conservation UK annual meeting, London, December 2009.

The University of Exeter, The Queen's Drive, Exeter, Devon, UK EX4 4QJ
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