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Dr. Joan Murrell Owens: Call of the Coral

Turning a deep-sea passion into singular discoveries.

Joan Murrell Owens looking through a microscope
Dr. Joan Murrell Owens. Portrait by Sarah Pedry
Silloutte of a girl reaching into the ocean
As a young girl, Joan Murrell Owens was fascinated by the sea

As a young girl, Joan Murrell Owens fell in love with the sea. On fishing trips she took with her family near their home in Miami, she watched with wonder at how the water changed colors, observed the gentle manatees and the playful otters, and wondered about the countless creatures just beneath the ocean surface.

Joan knew she wanted to be a marine biologist from the time she was a child. But as a Black girl living in the segregated south, the path to her dream held an overwhelming amount of obstacles. After a winding career, Joan Murrell Owens came back to her love of marine biology. She did research with the Smithsonian Institute, earned her PhD, and discovered three brand new species of coral along the way.

"As a kid, Joan Murrell Owens often dreamed of what was hidden deep beneath the sea. But her research at the Smithsonian shows that there is still much to discover and understand even within records hidden in a local museum or library!"

Watch the video or keep reading the blog version below!


Crucial corals

When you think about corals, you probably picture a coral reef - shallow waters full of brightly colored structures with lacy shapes and strange patterns, and tropical fish flitting in between them. Coral reefs are a hugely important and diverse kind of ecosystem. They’re home to thousands of species of plants and animals, and they can even protect the land from storms coming in off the ocean. But corals don’t only live in warm, tropical waters. They can live all over the world, even in cold, deep parts of the ocean.

Fish swimming in coral reef
Coral reefs are incredibly important and diverse ecosystems

Polyp and zooxanthellae
Corals are made up of polyps living symbiotically with single-celled organisms called zooxanthellae

Corals are a very strange type of organism. Most corals are what’s called a composite organism, which means that they’re actually made up of thousands of tiny organisms instead of being a single living creature. In the case of coral, those tiny organisms are small animals called polyps that often live symbiotically with single celled organisms called zooxanthellae. Polyps are soft, tube-like animals, with a central mouth and small tentacles. In stony corals, the specific type of coral that Dr. Owens specialized in, the polyps grow themselves a hard exoskeleton. The hard, stony skeleton combined with the colorful zooxanthellae are what come together to form the interesting shapes and colors of coral.

The zooxanthellae are crucial for the life cycle of many corals, but they’re also incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. When the temperature of oceans changes even just by a few degrees, it can devastate the population of the microscopic zooxanthellae in the corals. This causes corals to lose their vivid colors, a condition known as coral bleaching. This eventually can cause the corals to die of starvation, because without the zooxanthellae they can’t get the nutrients they need. To protect our incredible diversity of corals, we need to take action to address climate change and maintain the health of our oceans.

Bleached coral next to a healthy, colorful coral
Bleached coral next to a healthy, colorful coral. Photo from Wikipedia.


Coral diversity

Corals can come in a huge range of shapes - they can look like branching fingers (pillar corals), like big sheets (table corals), or like wrinkly petals or a flower (foliose corals).

Coral reef
Coral comes in a huge range of shapes, sizes, and colors. Photo by Toby Hudson

What’s more, the same species of coral can grow in many different shapes depending on where it’s growing, the temperature of the water it’s growing in, and even how fast the water is moving around it. This can make it really hard to tell different species of coral apart. It’s often not enough to just look at a sample of coral - scientists need to deeply study the characteristics of a specimen in order to classify it. This is the kind of careful work that Dr. Owens did that led to her coral discoveries!


A winding path

Joan Murrell Owens was born in Miami, Florida in 1933. She spent her junior years reading about marine life and the scientists who worked in it, especially Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. Her family placed great importance on education, and as a result her grades were impeccable. But when she entered college at Fisk University in 1950, she learned there were simply no opportunities for either women or African Americans in the marine sciences. So she majored in fine art, while also minoring in psychology and math. Still not completely satisfied with her career path, she chose yet another direction for her masters degree, and specialized in guidance counseling and reading.

For the next 15 years, Joan had an impressive career teaching, working with children in hospitals, and designing an educational program that would later form the basis for the Upward Bound program. But the original dream of working as a marine scientist was still unanswered in her heart. At 37, she left her field to finally pursue her childhood dream. She enrolled as an undergraduate all over again at George Washington University, which allowed her to mimic a degree in marine biology by creating her own interdisciplinary program combining zoology and geology.

Dr. Owens at her microscope
Dr. Owens at her microscope. Photo courtesy of Harriet Jackson Scarupa

After she finished her second undergraduate degree, Owens wanted to do her own research on corals, which involves scuba diving into the ocean to study and collect corals in their own environment. Unfortunately, it turned out that she carried the traits for sickle cell anemia, a disease which would make it too dangerous for her to scuba dive. So instead, she embraced a project studying century-old coral samples at the Smithsonian. After years of study, research, and teaching, Joan earned a PhD in geology at the age of 51 and became a professor at Howard University. Dr. Owens not only achieved her dream of being a marine biologist, but she was also a dedicated, passionate educator who loved teaching as much as she loved research. Over the course of her career, Dr. Owens discovered one new genus and three new species of coral.


Cute as a button coral

Dr. Owen’s new species were small corals, only around the size of a quarter. They were a type of coral that’s known as button corals. Button corals are unique because they are solitary: they’re made of just a single polyp instead of many polyps living together. Button corals still need the single celled zooxanthellae to photosynthesize and get energy from the sun, but they also use their tentacles to grab small amounts of food, like a sea anemone! The corals that Dr. Owens identified are also deep-sea corals, which live much lower than the shallow-water coral reefs.

Letepsammia franki, one new species of button coral discovered by Dr. Owens
Letepsammia franki, one new species of button coral discovered by Dr. Owens. Photograph from the Smithsonian Institute.

Dr. Owens was able to discover these new species based only on specimens of coral that had already been collected and preserved nearly 100 years prior. Her work in the archives required a careful attention to detail and an extensive knowledge of marine biology. As a kid, Joan Murrell Owens often dreamed of what was hidden deep beneath the sea. But her research at the Smithsonian shows that there is still much to discover and understand even within records hidden in a local museum or library!

Written by David Obuchowski, Sarah Pedry Obuchowski, and Caroline Martin

Edited by Caroline Martin and Madelyn Leembruggen

Illustrations by Lindsey Oberhelman

Portrait by Sarah Pedry

Activities by Anindita Maiti

A married couple, Sarah Pedry and David Obuchowski collaborate on various projects. In addition to their "Scenes & Sketches" of Women Naturalists for The Hairpin, Sarah and David will have their first children's picture book published in March, 2023 by mineditionUS (Astra Publishing). It is entitled How Birds Sleep and is available for pre-order/purchase wherever books are sold. They are quite active in their own independent work, as well. Learn more about the book here:

Sarah is an artist and illustrator who is deeply inspired by nature. A voracious researcher, she is also a teaching artist at the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Botanical Art & Illustration. There, she teaches classes on a variety of subjects from nature journaling to abstract art. Among other places, her work has been featured at the High Line in New York City. Her website is

David is a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction whose long-form essays focus on culture, the arts, and the human experience as it relates to cars. His short fiction has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes as well as inclusion in the Best American Short Stories and Best of the Net anthologies. He is the creator, host, producer, and writer of the audio documentary series, TEMPEST, which was recently adapted into a television series. His website is

Sources and Further Reading

Adapted from Joan Murrell Owens and the Button Corals by David and Sarah Obuchowski

Corals Tutorial from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Learn more about the wide world of corals!

1. Investigate (45-60 mins) - Explore the internet to discover what the primary causes of ocean warming are. If you need a place to start, check out this website! After you spend some time exploring, take some time to evaluate each of the sources you looked at. What are you findings?

2. Brainstorm (20-30 mins) – Corals need algae (called zooxanthellae) living on them for food and protection. But changes in ocean water temperature, pollution, and irregularities in ocean tides upsets these algae on coral. When the algae die due to pollutions and climate changes, corals lose their color and become vulnerable to diseases and prone to extinction. Spend time researching the issues that contribute to coral bleaching (take a look at this website to start). Do you have any ideas for how we can save the corals?

3. Create (1-2 days)Create your own simulation for coral bleaching. After your experiment, spend some time researching and try to answer the following questions.

(a) How do carbon emissions impact coral reefs across the world?

(b) What are some ways we can reduce our carbon emissions? What actions can you take? What actions can we encourage our governments to take?


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