Open 9 am - 5 pm
Dr. Ross Cunning stands before Shedd's historic bronze doros with a face-splitting grin on his bearded face.

Ross Cunning, Ph.D.

Research Biologist

Ross Cunning is a coral biologist and ecologist researching ways to boost coral reef resilience under climate change.

Education

Ph.D., Marine Biology and Ecology, University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

B.Sc., Biology and Environmental Science, Duke University

“Shedd’s unique resources – such as the R/V Coral Reef II, and our on-site molecular ecology lab – allow us to conduct cutting-edge research to help conserve coral reefs. At the same time, we can bring our audience on board to help solve corals’ (and our own) biggest challenge – climate change.”

Ross Cunning, Ph.D., is a coral research biologist in Shedd’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research. His research focuses on coral reefs in the Bahamas to understand how to sustain reef ecosystems in the face of a changing climate.

Cunning’s cutting-edge research has made him an expert in the relationship between corals and their symbiotic algae, which provide corals with food and give them their color. The breakdown of this vital relationship, known as coral bleaching, occurs when ocean waters are too warm. Coral bleaching is one of the leading causes of reef decline around the world.

Between his fieldwork in the Bahamas and his molecular work in the aquarium’s Microbiome Lab, Cunning’s objective is to identify genetic and ecological factors that promote tolerance to increasing temperatures in corals and their symbiotic algae. His findings will help reveal how some corals may be able to resist or adapt to climate change and will be applied to improving coral reef restoration techniques.

Before coming to Shedd, Cunning was a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Miami working on approaches to boost coral thermal tolerance. Prior to that, he was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, where he developed theory and mathematical models of coral bleaching.

Cunning’s scientific works have received awards from the International Society for Reef Studies and the University of Miami, where he conducted his graduate research.

Cunning earned a Ph.D. in marine biology and ecology from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and environmental science from Duke University.

See Publications


Research Projects


Characterization of a thermally tolerant Orbicella faveolata reef in Abaco, The Bahamas

Parker, K. E., Ward, J. O., Eggleston, E. M., Fedorov, E., Parkinson, J. E., Dahlgren, C. P., & Cunning, R.(2020). Characterization of a thermally tolerant Orbicella faveolata reef in Abaco, The Bahamas. Coral Reefs, 39, 675–685. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-020-01948-0

Increasing comparability among coral bleaching experiments

Grottoli A. G., Warner M. E., Vega Thurber R., Toonen R., van Woesik R., McLachlan R., Price J., Bahr K., Baums I. B., Castillo K., Coffroth M. A., Cunning R., et al. (2020) Increasing comparability among coral bleaching experiments. Ecological Applications 00:e02262. http://doi.org/10.1002/eap.2262

Dynamic symbioses reveal pathways to coral survival through pro-longed heatwaves

Claar D. C., Starko S., Tietjen K. L., Epstein H. E., Cunning R., Cobb K. M., Baker A. C., Gates R. D., & Baum J. K. (2020) Dynamic symbioses reveal pathways to coral survival through pro-longed heatwaves. Nature Communications 11:6097. http://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19169-y

High light alongside elevated PCO2 alleviates thermal depression of photosynthesis in a hard coral (Pocillopora acuta)

Mason R. A. B., Wall C. B., Cunning R., Dove S., & Gates R. D. (2020) High light alongside elevated PCO2 alleviates thermal depression of photosynthesis in a hard coral (Pocillopora acuta). Journal of Experimental Biology, 223:jeb223198. http://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.223198

Thermotolerant coral symbionts modulate heat stress-responsive genes in their hosts

Cunning R., & Baker A. C. (2020) Thermotolerant coral symbionts modulate heat stress-responsive genes in their hosts. Molecular Ecology, 29, 2940– 2950. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15526

Metabolite pools of the reef building coral Montipora capitata are unaffected by Symbiodiniaceae community composition

Matthews J. L., Cunning R., Ritson-Williams R., Oakley C. A., Lutz A., Roessner U., Grossman A. R., Weis V. M., Gates R. D., & Davy S. K. (2020) Metabolite pools of the reef building coral Montipora capitata are unaffected by Symbiodiniaceae community composition. Coral Reefs, 39, 1727–1737. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-020-01999-3

Extensive coral mortality and critical habitat loss following dredging and their association with remotely-sensed sediment plumes

Cunning, R., Silverstein, R. N., Barnes, B. B., & Baker, A. C. (2019). Extensive coral mortality and critical habitat loss following dredging and their association with remotely-sensed sediment plumes. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 145, 185–199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2019.05.027

Will coral reefs survive by adaptive bleaching?

Cunning, R. (2021) Will coral reefs survive by adaptive bleaching? Emerging Topics in Life Sciences, ETLS20210227. https://doi.org/10.1042/ETLS20210227

Census of heat tolerance among Florida’s threatened staghorn corals finds resilient individuals throughout existing nursery populations.

Cunning, R., Parker, K.E., Johnson-Sapp, K., Karp, R.F., Wen, A.D., et al. (2021). Census of heat tolerance among Florida’s threatened staghorn corals finds resilient individuals throughout existing nursery populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 288, 20211613. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1613

Symbiont shuffling induces differential DNA methylation responses to thermal stress in the coral Montastraea cavernosa.

Rodriguez-Casariego, J.A., Cunning, R., Baker, A.C., & Eirin-Lopez, J.M. (2021). Symbiont shuffling induces differential DNA methylation responses to thermal stress in the coral Montastraea cavernosa. Molecular Ecology, 31, 588-602. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.16246

Comparative analysis of the Pocillopora damicornis genome highlights role of immune system in coral evolution.

Cunning, R., Bay, R.A., Gillette, P., Baker, A.C., & Traylor-Knowles, N. (2018). Comparative analysis of the Pocillopora damicornis genome highlights role of immune system in coral evolution. Scientific Reports, 8(16134), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-34459-8