CORVALLIS, Ore. – The chilly coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest are quite a distance from the closest tropical coral reef, but Oregon State University research programs on these threatened ecosystems have been recognized as among the best in both the United States and the world.

One of OSU’s scientists involved in studies of coral reef ecology, Mark Hixon, was also cited as the leading expert in the Western Hemisphere and third in the world, based on journal publications that were most often cited for their scientific significance. Overall, OSU coral reef research programs ranked sixth in the U.S. and eighth globally.

The report was just made in an analysis of the field of coral reef ecology, surveying 5,060 authors from 1,644 institutions in 103 countries over a 10-year period, made by the Thomson Institute for Science Information. The top two research institutions in this field are in Australia, home of the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef.

Other leading institutions in the United States include the Smithsonian Institution, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of North Carolina, University of Miami and University of Hawaii.

Research papers in coral reef ecology address such environmental issues as overfishing, global warming, human impacts, population change in reef organisms, ecological modeling and reef geology.

“Many Oregonians don’t understand the relevance of coral reefs to our state,” Hixon said. “In fact, coral reefs are the source of important medicines, and their ongoing demise is a strong warning of the effects of global warming. They are also outdoor laboratories for answering fundamental questions about sea life, such as what specifically causes the birth and death rates of marine fish to vary.”

Coral reefs, found in shallow, tropical marine waters, are renowned for their beauty and often form the basis for major tourist industries. They support an extraordinary level of biodiversity, including over 4,000 species of fish and everything from sponges to spiny lobsters and sea snakes. But threats from pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification and other environmental issues have caused serious concerns, and led to significant research, monitoring and protection initiatives.

In the past few decades, about 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have died, and it’s estimated that an additional 40 percent are at risk.

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Mark Hixon,