“If it bleeds it leads” is a common meme in the journalism field, but when it becomes the mantra of science reporting, sometimes the real message gets lost in translation. Unfortunately, so it is with a new paper from Doug Rasher and Mark Hay down the road at Georgia Tech. In their work, published in PNAS this week, they show that algae from coral reefs can have toxic effects on adjacent corals including bleaching (expulsion of the symbiotic algae that are responsible for much of the corals success) and even death. They provide evidence that these effects are mediated by lipid soluble compounds and that they are much reduced on reefs that have healthy herbivorous fish populations to keep the algae in check. There, I summarized their work in 2 sentences. It’s disappointing, then, that the NSF (NSF for goodness sake!) turned that into “Killer Seaweed: Scientists Find First Proof that Chemicals from Seaweeds Damage Coral on Contact”. Unfortunately, that kind of catch-phrase gets picked up all over, so that MSNBC ran with “Killer seaweed threatens corals: Innocent-looking species turns into an assassin of nearby reefs” (assassin? Really?!). The Georgia Tech website went with “Research shows that chemicals from seaweed kills corals on contact”. Not as dramatic perhaps, but more reasonable. Ed Yong at Discover Blogs chose to emphasise the fish side of the story: “Overfishing gives toxic seaweeds an edge in their competition with corals”; both these seem fine to me, but honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with using the title of the paper “Chemically rich seaweeds poison corals when not controlled by herbivores”. I think Rasher and Hay did a good job distilling the essence of the paper into a punchy and information-dense title. In any case, its frustrating to see crux of a paper lost in attempts to sensationalise the story, as did all the outlets who went with the “killer seaweed” theme.
Of course, you can’t include everything in a single paper and I would expect the authors to respond to my point by saying that the experiments I describe were beyond the scope of their project. But I think it could have been a better paper if they acknowledged that there’s another possibility that cannot be excluded, based on work that’s yet to be done.
Rasher, D., & Hay, M. (2010). Chemically rich seaweeds poison corals when not controlled by herbivores Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0912095107