Our group of researchers, students and technicians contribute to the study of a diverse number of marine habitats that are seemingly not connected. By employing biophysical modeling techniques it becomes clear that all these habitats are connected by their reliance on connectivity. From hydrothermal vents to surface plankton, all the way to coastal coral reefs and mangrove forests, ecosystems rely on inter-connectivity between populations to withstand the many challenges to their survival. By combining genetic techniques and ecological observations with ocean circulation models we study the role connectivity plays in supporting the diverse habitats found around Okinawa Island and beyond.
Biophysical modeling is the inclusion of biological parameters within physics based models. In our case this often means including parameters related to larval/planktonic dispersal with models of ocean currents. By using state of the art modeling techniques combined with our own in-situ measurements we are able to forecast oceanographic parameters as well as predict the distribution and connectivity of marine species/populations.
This diverse group of species is defined by their passive movement which is dictated by ocean currents. The plankton can be separated into two groups based upon their life-cycle. The holoplankton and the meroplankton. Holoplankton spend their entire lifecycle drifting with ocean currents which means that details of their ecology can answer important questions in physical oceanography. Meroplankton only spend part of their life at the whim of ocean currents, often their larval/juvenile stage. These species utilize ocean currents to disperse across the ocean on local, regional and even global scales.
Reef building corals are the foundation for one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Through symbiosis with single celled algae, corals are able to utilize the energy from the sun in order to support a highly productive system in areas where nutrients are scarce. Although coral reefs are very impressive in terms of size and complexity, they are also very sensitive to oceanographic conditions and anthropogenic disturbances. By utilizing our knowledge of oceanographic conditions, it is possible to identify which reefs are most at risk and which areas are most crucial to survival due to their important role as a source of new coral larvae.
Mangrove trees form coastal forest habitats that are crucial for the survival of many other species. For many marine species mangrove forests are ideal nurseries and breeding grounds, even human beings benefit from their coastal protection during extreme weather events. Mangrove species have numerous physiological adaptations that allow them to survive in saline coastal waters. Mangroves also exhibit unique reproductive strategies that result in their ability to disperse their offspring over long distances by utilizing ocean currents.
Far below the oceans surface where tectonic activity forces hot magma toward the earth's surface, seawater is superheated below the seabed and released as a hydrothermal vent. Unique ecosystems form around these hydrothermal vents. Ecosystems that survive independent of sunlight but instead rely on the chemicals released from the earths surface. Hydrothermal vents are a perfect case study for answering questions in island biogeography, endemism, genetic connectivity and many other subjects owed to their isolated environment.
As part of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology we have access to state-of-the-art laboratories as well as field equipment and a purpose built marine science station.
(All images credit of Mitarai unit members)