Researchers working in the Florida Aquarium’s coral conservation program have claimed a significant breakthrough in their efforts to save the corals of the Florida Keys Reef Tract—the planet’s third-largest barrier reef, which stretches more than 350 miles along the southeastern Florida coast. The scientists say they have used aquarium technology to successfully reproduce elkhorn coral, a critical species that is notoriously difficult to grow in the lab.
Keri O’Neil, the senior scientist that oversees the Tampa aquarium’s spawning lab, said: “This is a critical step to preventing elkhorn coral from going extinct in the state of Florida.” Elkhorn coral once dominated the Caribbean, but it is now rarely seen alive in the wild. O’Neil estimates that there are only around 300 elkhorn coral left in the Florida Keys Reef Tract. However, she expects as many as 100 of the thousands of baby coral produced in the spawning experiment to survive into adulthood.
O’Neil says her team has faced a lot of criticism from other researchers who doubted the corals could spawn in the lab. Last year, the program set about creating the perfect controlled environment for elkhorn coral to spawn—which only happens once a year—using LED lights to accurately mimic sunrise, sunset and moon cycles. When the coral didn’t spawn, the team realized that the timing of moonrise was off by “about three hours.” After making that correction, this August, the scientists saw baby coral under the microscope for the first time.
The breakthrough is significant for the larger restoration effort, which involves a large number of partner conservation groups and organisations in the region. The work opens up the possibility of selecting corals for restoration with particular properties that will allow the reef to become more resilient to the threats associated with warmer ocean temperatures, disease, and other environmental stressors. However, researchers emphasize that the ultimate problem that needs to be solved is the climate crisis. “We’re buying time for the reef. We’re buying time for the corals,” said O’Neil. “There is hope for coral reefs. Don’t give up hope. It’s all not lost. However, we need to make serious changes in our behavior to save this planet.”
A microscope image of the baby coral that spawned at the Florida Aquarium
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