School of Life Sciences

Dr Brent Chiazzari at graduation and while collecting coral in the iSimangaliso Marine Protected Area in KZN.

KZN Corals Under the Spotlight

Watersport enthusiast and proud father of two Dr Brent Chiazzari knows how to mix business with pleasure – enlisting his underwater diving skills to help pursue his passion for aquatic biology. The result is a PhD under his diving belt!

Chiazzari investigated Scleractinia, a marine invertebrate that forms coral reefs that are crucial ecosystems in the world’s oceans. He focused on the phylogenetics and evolution of hermatypic Scleractinia in South African coral reefs, which are ecologically significant, young and of local importance.

The study assessed species richness through genetic and conventional techniques and provided an updated checklist for the region.

‘As climate change may cause potential range shifts, this research is critical for understanding South African coral reefs’ dynamics,’ he said.

Using diver surveys and collections, Chiazzari identified 148 species from 45 genera, including seven genera reported for the first time. The study also demonstrated deep genetic diversity and tested the presence of cryptic species.

Based on his findings, Chiazzari estimates the total number of species at around 180, confirming the uniqueness of South African coral reefs as distinct assemblages

‘These findings also underline the importance of securing coral biodiversity in the region and establish the region as a part of an interconnected community of the greater Western Indian Ocean,’ he said.

Chiazzari’s PhD research arose from personal curiosity. ‘After completing my honours degree I was left with a lab notebook full of unanswered questions and unresolved issues that lingered in my mind,’ he recalled. Following an MSc detour that investigated the ultimate cause of the annual Sardine Run off the KwaZulu-Natal coast using population genetics, he returned to his fascination with indigenous corals.

Funding was secured through the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) SeaKeys project and his long-term mentor, Dr Angus Macdonald served as both his supervisor and a leading authority in the field.  UKZN’s School of Life Sciences boasts a formidable collection of research vessels and cutting-edge equipment as well as a dive store, and enjoys a close partnership with a local dive charter that enabled him to establish a permanent field laboratory in the idyllic setting of Sodwana Bay. ‘With more than 100 hours of underwater exploration pencilled into our dive logs, UKZN’s resources proved instrumental in my success. To do my PhD through the Institution was a no brainer!’ he said.

Having settled on a research topic that would have a meaningful impact on scientific advancement and conservation efforts while also making use of his skills, abilities and passion for diving, Chiazzari believes that his dissertation can serve as a foundation for future investigations on coral reefs in the region. ‘I have provided a snapshot of the current biodiversity of hard corals, an important piece of the puzzle in environmental conservation.

‘With the current uncertainty and concern surrounding the response of coral reefs to climate change and habitat destruction, I hope that my findings can contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of how we can preserve our natural environment. Ultimately, I hope that this work will provide valuable insights into the larger picture of environmental sustainability.

‘Brent is one of those people with a real connection to the marine environment and this is evident in the quality of his work,’ said Macdonald.  ‘His study revealed that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park hosts much of Africa’s evolutionary diversity of corals and could prove to be a valuable refuge for this threatened taxon in the Anthropocene.’

Chiazzari – who works in the crop protection industry when not underwater – offered some sage advice to aspiring PhD students who hold down fulltime jobs: ‘Do not underestimate the level of difficulty that awaits you. As one ages, life’s responsibilities inevitably accumulate, making the research process even more challenging. Establish a feasible timeline and avoid unnecessary deviations. Life will try and get in the way, that’s a given…’

He thanked his wife, parents, brother and UKZN colleagues and friends for their support.

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal and Supplied