Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2018

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors


Environmental Studies

First Advisor

Atreyee Bhattacharya

Second Advisor

Dale Miller

Third Advisor

Heidi Souder


Caribbean coral reefs are some of the most threatened marine ecosystems in the world. Predictions have a 90% mortality of coral reefs by 2050; right now, over 50% of coral reefs have died. Research suggests that environmental stressors of local origin, such as sediment run off, can reduce the resilience of these reefs to global threats i.e. ocean warming. Sedimentation can stunt coral growth and reduce its resilience; trapped material could render coral skeletons brittle. Despite the importance of quantifying sources and types of materials trapped in corals, the research community is yet to develop techniques that allow accurate representation of trapped matter.

The dataset presented here explores the usefulness of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), a non-destructive x-ray scanning technique– to estimate metal content in coral cores collected from four locations near Belize. The coral cores together cover a period of 1876-2006. Substituted metal content (not trapped metal content) from these cores has been well-studied using solution-based Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS), which provided us the opportunity to test the efficacy of the XRF technique by correlating our results to the ICP-MS results.

The XRF technique is a viable supplement in determining trapped metal content in coral cores. It may be particularly helpful for assessing resistant phases such as grains of sediment that are not fully dissolved in the typical solution-based ICP-MS methodology. XRF should be used in association with the ICP-MS methods for a full characterization of elemental abundance in coral skeletons. Our research has strong implications far beyond that of these corals. It establishes XRF scanning as a viable methodology to characterize trapped content that will assist researchers to more fully assess the causes and impacts of local stressors on coral reefs.