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Coral Scientist Joins Shedd Aquarium Research Team

Dr. Ross Cunning to Study Coral in The Bahamas, Focus on Conservation of Reefs

October 11, 2018

Headshot of a smiling Ross Cunning, Ph.D. stands in front of the main aquarium doors.

Shedd Aquarium’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research welcomed a new conservation research biologist this month, expanding the aquarium’s dedication to understanding and conserving aquatic species and ecosystems. Ross Cunning, Ph.D. joins the aquarium’s marine research team as a coral research biologist and will begin studying coral reefs in The Bahamas in the spring of 2019 to understand how to sustain coral reef ecosystems in the face of a changing climate.

“Ross’s dynamic skill base and experience implementing cutting-edge research make him an invaluable addition to Shedd Aquarium’s growing marine research team,” said Dr. Steve Kessel, director of marine research at Shedd Aquarium. “We look forward to learning about The Bahamas coral reef ecosystems alongside Ross, while advancing coral conservation efforts happening around the globe.”

Cunning comes to the aquarium with an expertise in the relationship between coral and the symbiotic algae that give coral its color and keep it healthy. The breakdown of this relationship, known as coral bleaching, occurs when waters get too warm and is one of the leading causes of coral decline.

In his new role, Cunning will dive into the waters of The Bahamas to explore coral reefs with the goal of understanding how some corals might resist or adapt to environmental change, and how research and restoration approaches can be effectively used to boost coral reef resilience.

“As coral bleaching events have devastated reefs around the world over the last few years, it is clear that, now more than ever, we need to understand corals’ ability to survive changes in their environment,” said Cunning. “Building on my previous coral studies in other tropical regions, I look forward to using Shedd’s resources – both in the field and the aquarium – to advance coral research and conservation.”

In addition to tagging and observing corals in The Bahamas, Cunning plans to use the aquarium’s Microbiome Lab to explore the genetic make-up of corals and symbiotic algae that are more tolerant to warming conditions, providing keys to understanding coral survival and adaptation. He also plans to use the aquarium’s collection of corals for his studies. Findings from Cunning’s multi-year study are anticipated to increase the success of coral reef restoration approaches.

Cunning earned his bachelor’s degree from Duke University in Biology and Environmental Science, and earned his Ph.D. in Marine Biology and Ecology from the University of Miami. He then served as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, before returning to the University of Miami for a second research fellowship.