Project Coral: A New Hope to Save an Endangered Species

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Project Coral: A New Hope to Save an Endangered Species

Florida Aquarium's Keri O'Neil and Horniman's Jamie Craggs in the labThe coming months are going to be anxious ones for Florida Aquarium Senior Coral Scientist Keri O’Neil and her team as they labor to achieve a rarity: an in-lab coral spawn.

 

The effort is part of the Aquarium’s “Project Coral” partnership with London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens. The collaborative effort’s purpose is, as O’Neil puts it, “to develop technology to induce corals to spawn in the laboratory.” That sounds simple but the task of artificially replicating the annual conditions that cause corals to spawn in the wild is exceedingly complex.

 

Horniman first managed an artificially induced spawn in 2013, and has since successfully spawned 18 species of Pacific corals. But generating a spawn has never been done for corals native to the Atlantic, and remains a challenging undertaking. Four 350-gallon “spawning aquarium systems” have been installed in The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation at Apollo Beach.

 

These systems use advanced LED technology and computer-control systems to mimic sunrises, sunsets, moon phases, temperature and water quality parameters that subtly signal the corals to reproduce. There is no margin for error when you are trying to mimic and fool nature.

An overall view of one the florida aquarium's project coral tank tanks with blazing LEDs and full of coral colonies for the project used to induce spawning

“You do one thing wrong and it can throw you off for a year,” O’Neil said in a recent interview. She is intent that nothing be done wrong, but the Aquarium’s coral conservation team is racing the clock. The Aquarium hopes to spawn two species of coral, pillar and maze, both of which are being wiped out in Florida waters by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. Pillar coral generally spawn in August or September and maze, or brain coral, usually spawn in October; but they begin to develop their eggs many months before spawning actually occurs. So, the corals must be perfectly acclimated within a few months.

 

She said the corals still are “getting used to their environment… The pillar coral is particularly sensitive. It is still adjusting to the LED lighting.” Her scientific discipline makes her cautious about predictions.

 

“Coral spawning is the end result of a very long reproductive cycle that is affected by many different factors,” she said. “I can’t be sure it will happen this time. It would be reckless to bet on something so complex to be a first-time success, but we will do everything we can to make this happen.”

a closeup of pillar coral in the project coral tank

She is, however, optimistic about the ultimate success of a venture she believes is vital to the survival of the Florida coral reefs. After all, the Center for Conservation facilities are state of the art and The Florida Aquarium has proved itself committed to protecting, preserving and restoring Florida’s corals.

 

The Florida Aquarium’s remarkable success at growing corals in its greenhouse-like “arks” illustrates what can be accomplished in short order.

 

In 2014, The Florida Aquarium became the first institution to raise staghorn coral larva in the laboratory. Now it is raising thousands of larvae in the lab. The importance of nurturing these healthy corals was underscored in April when O’Neil led a multi-agency expedition to “release” 3,000 Aquarium-raised staghorn corals in selected sites off The Florida Keys. The endangered Florida Reef Tract, which runs off the coast of Florida from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas, desperately needs such assistance.

 

baby staghorn corals growing up on a tile used to cultivate the species in coral greenhouses

The Reef Tract already has lost more than 90 percent of its staghorn and elkhorn corals. Pollution, disease, climate change and boat damage are factors. A new and particularly deadly menace is the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, a mysterious affliction that affects 25 species of corals. Only discovered in 2014, the disease now is found through much of the Reef Tract. This is why The Florida Aquarium is determined to preserve and enhance healthy coral gene pools.

 

Currently, the Aquarium grows larvae that have been collected in the wild. (Corals broadcast millions of eggs during a spawn that will never grow to become corals, so the small amount collected has no impact on natural populations.) An artificial spawn would provide an efficient and reliable way to generate healthy corals.

 

an exterior shot of horniman museumO’Neil studied Horniman Museum and Gardens’ pioneering spawning techniques for 10 days in 2017 and she consults with its researchers regularly. “We Skype to discuss things.” The California Academy of Sciences also achieved a laboratory spawn of Pacific coral earlier this last year. But no facility has reproduced the Atlantic corals, essential to rescuing the Florida Reef Tract.

 

“If we have successful spawning and fertilization and then raise the coral at the center, we could return corals to the wild in areas that the [Stony Coral Tissue Loss] disease has already been.” This would allow the corals to reclaim areas where they have been eliminated.

 

The four tanks, each about eight-feet long by two-feet wide, are not large. But they don’t have to be. O’Neil said each tank holds about 15 corals, every one of which “has the potential of releasing thousands of eggs.” O’Neil not only has to replicate natural conditions, she also must reverse day and night, making sure the day-time conditions seem like night to the corals.

 

The reason? Corals spawn at night and it’s important that all hands be on deck when it occurs. “You end up with a lot of tired scientists if they must wait throughout the night,” O’Neil said. A microprocessor computer linked to a cloud-based monitoring program keeps track of everything and notifies O’Neil of the slightest change.

 

She and the coral team will attend every possible detail of the process during the count-down to the spawn. While she admits anxiety, she also relishes the chance to confront one of Florida’s most perplexing ecological threats as part of The Florida Aquarium’s coral conservation program. “I believe that the Project Coral lab-based spawning program is the future for coral restoration. In the lab, we can do many things that are no longer possible in the wild, such as spawn corals separated by far distances right next to each other or achieve high fertilization and settlement rates so that we can produce more juveniles in a single year than would be made in many years in the wild.” 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

a portrait of joe guidry standing in front of the florida aquarium's mangrove forest located in its iconic wetlands domeJoe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...