Coral reefs harbour diverse, productive and economically important marine ecosystems which are threatened worldwide by local and global environmental changes. Hard corals are the main builders of the coral reef framework and play a fundamental key role in the reef ecosystem. Corals have established a wide array of associations with other marine organisms, and most reef-dwelling corals host symbiotic dinoflagellates, considered the dominant primary producers in tropical reef communities. Corals and their symbionts are irreplaceable key organisms for the growth of coral reefs and the functioning of the reef ecosystems. However, sensitivity and resilience to various environmental changes, such as increased sedimentation and water temperature, are largely species-specific. Moreover, different coral species are known to have different associations, ecological requirements and functional roles. Thus, the study of coral identity and diversity is a fundamental task at the base of any coral reef monitoring and conservation initiative. Yet, it remains a very challenging one due to the remarkable morphologic variability of corals, the presence of cryptic species, and the patchiness of their distribution and abundance. Over the last decade, extensive biodiversity and integrated systematics studies have led to important advances for the Indo-Pacific reef corals. In the Red Sea, a unique body of water featuring high biodiversity and endemism, reef organisms appear to have adapted to live in extreme temperature gradients and seasonal temperature fluctuations. Our knowledge of the identity, diversity and distribution of Red Sea corals has considerably improved thanks to the research done at KAUST. However, while some abundant and ecologically important groups still remain unstudied, research of the composition, structure and distribution of coral communities is timely in light of the ongoing global environmental changes and the local coastal development plans for the Red Sea.
Francesca Benzoni is a marine biologist specialized in the diversity and ecology of reef-building corals. Dr Benzoni has received her doctoral degree from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, France. She has worked for the French Research Institute for Development in New Caledonia, and is currently Assistant Professor in Zoology at the Department of Biotechnology and Biosciences of the University of Milano - Bicocca, Italy where she teaches Marine Invertebrate Zoology and Biogeography. Over the last two decades, Dr Benzoni has built an extensive knowledge of coral reef biodiversity in the Indo-Pacific region with a strong focus on the seas around Arabia. She has contributed to major advances in the field of hard corals integrated systematics and biogeography through a multidisciplinary approach. In parallel, she has studied the short and mid-term effects of local and global environmental changes on the composition and structure of coral dominated benthic assemblages. In reason of her expertise she has been involved in different coral reef monitoring and habitat mapping studies in the public and private sector. Dr Benzoni has organised several international oceanographic expeditions and workshops aiming at the exploration and study of coral reef diversity. Moreover, she has led training activities in various countries to promote and sustain the knowledge transfer to local communities and governments. Dr Benzoni has authored over 90 research papers and two reef coral field guides.