Research Profile | Laurent Righetti | MSc Marine Science & Climate Change

Identification Guide to Sea Pens: In and around Gibraltar's waters
2nd February 2024

Describe your MSc project?

My research project aimed to assess the abundance of the finger-shaped sea pen (Veretillum cynomorium) within the western coastal waters of Gibraltar. Sea pens are a type of soft, colonial coral which form “meadows” that can increase local biodiversity, protect juvenile marine species, and alter the nearby abiotic environment in ways not dissimilar to traditional stony coral reefs. Despite their importance, little is known about the species in question, especially within the waters around Gibraltar.
By use of underwater footage obtained through diving, the research project assessed several local V. cynomorium meadows within the eastern Bay of Gibraltar which provided a baseline dataset of their local abundance. The average abundance of visible V. cynomorium within the sampled meadows was 4.2 colonies per meter squared, which represents the greatest abundance of the species in the Mediterranean Sea within currently available scientific literature.

What type of research has it involved and what skills have you learned?

The research for my MSc project consisted of two halves: a desk-based literature review and an underwater field study. The literature review was conducted to analyse past papers on sea pens, wherein the impact of environmental factors such as depth range, sediment type and geographic location on sea pen species was assessed. Such an approach to the research, combined with the short time dedicated to completing the MSc project, taught me to effectively plan out all facets of a research project within a rigid timeframe. It further taught me to carefully consider the methodology before implementing it on the field, as I would have little chance to change it at a later stage. The methodology for my field research followed a more hands-on approach.
I utilised a Dragon Touch camera to collect footage of the sea pen meadows and the quadrats I had placed within, before analysing the film within the BIIGLE software to assess the amount of V. cynomorium within the area. I had just recently become a PADI Open Water Diver by the time of the MSc project, which made collecting data challenging at first. However, there is no better way to become a good diver than having to juggle carrying a measuring tape, video camera and quadrat, all the while trying to conduct a proper scientific experiment underwater.

Why should the public know about this topic?

Do you know what a coral is? Surely, you do, and I’m sure you know just how important their reefs are to marine biodiversity, as well as how climate change is negatively impacting them. Now, did you know what a sea pen was before reading this page, or what its importance was?
When we hear the word coral we imagine reef-forming stony corals, limited to tropical, shallow regions of the world’s ocean. We would generally not start thinking about other types of corals, such as the soft corals (Octocorallia) which include gorgonians and sea pens. Despite their global distribution from the ocean’s depths to its shallow waters, from the tropics to its polar caps, these soft corals remain understudied and less well known. By being aware of the existence and importance of other types of corals, such as the sea pen, the public can gain a greater understanding of the ocean, the biogenic habitats within, and the importance of even seemingly unimportant animals in maintaining its biodiversity. This is particularly the case for Gibraltarians, since the study focused on a particular species in its coastal waters and can help increase interest in local sea pen meadows for divers and environmental policymakers. To help increase the public’s knowledge on local sea pens, a factsheet was created and distributed as part of this MSc project.
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What is the wider impact of your research?

While sea pens were known to exist within the waters around Gibraltar, they have remained unmentioned within the government of Gibraltar’s Marine Strategy Framework Directives despite their abundance and importance as a biogenic habitat.
Being the first study to assess sea pen abundance within Gibraltar’s waters, this MSc project’s discovery of a great V. cynomorium abundance indicates that the region is a hotspot for the species. Since Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, the sea pen meadows within its waters could be further considered (pending further research) as part of OSPAR’s “sea pen and burrowing megafauna” biotope which is currently used in UK waters. The findings of high V. cynomorium abundance helps contribute to the knowledge and protection of Gibraltar’s marine ecosystem and indicates that the organism should be included as an important species and habitat within Gibraltar’s marine assessments. It further increases the amount of currently sparse literature covering the species. Furthermore, my MSc project and the accompanying factsheet provides a good baseline which future assessments of the species in local waters (whether they be governmental, academic, or citizen science based) can built upon.

Comments from Head of School

Laurent’s project is a great example a student’s determination to learn. This project combines quantitative ecology skills to enable understanding of a species’ extent and distribution within a given area. The knowledge gained enables a foundation of baseline evidence to build on.
Dr Awantha Dissanayake, Head of School (Marine & Environmental Sciences)
  • MSc

    Master in Marine Science & Climate Change

    Designed and delivered by expert academics and scientists, this full or part-time interdisciplinary programme blends theoretical study with practical, field-based work. You will cover specialist subject areas and gain the skills required to tackle the complex issues associated with the sustainable development of marine ecosystems.[...]

    1 Year

    No Placement option

    Full Time

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