Collaborative Research: Flow and Nutrient Exchange Driven by Pulsing Corals

Research project


The broad focus of this project is to determine how active movements of flexible organisms enhance particle capture and nutrient exchange. We will specifically study species of the family Xeniidae, the pulsing soft corals, using a combination of mathematical modeling and experiments. This work will require the development of mathematical models to represent poroelastic structures representative of the feathery tentacles of the corals. We will also develop adaptive numerical methods for handling the flux of nutrients at these moving elastic boundaries.

Coral ecosystems are of significant interest to conservationists because of their remarkable diversity. As a result of climate change, the prevalence of corals has been dramatically reduced in the past few decades. Coral reefs, in comparison to colonies of soft corals, are composed of hard corals with calcium carbonate skeletons. These hard coral ecosystems have shown the most significant declines. In some regions of increased carbon dioxide, soft coral are outcompeting the hard coral. One significant difference between soft and hard coral is that the soft coral of the family Xeniidae actively pulsate, and this energetically expensive behavior has been shown to enhance photosynthesis rates by an order of magnitude. The central goal of this proposal is to describe how these active movements might give these soft coral a competitive advantage through augmented photosynthetic rates under certain environmental conditions.

The following specific aims will be addressed through this project:
Aim 1: Determine how the pulsing action enhances particle capture, the exchange of nutrients, and removal of waste.
Aim 2: Determine how pulsation dynamics of a single organism affects the bulk transport of fluid past the organism and the small scale mixing around the surface of the organism.
Aim 3: Determine whether or not the group pulsing dynamics are optimized for exchange using network analysis and computational fluid dynamics.
Effective start/end date10/1/159/30/18


  • National Science Foundation (NSF)


soft coral
network analysis
computational fluid dynamics
calcium carbonate
numerical method
coral reef
carbon dioxide
environmental conditions
climate change