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August 10, 2023
The Florida Aquarium


Tampa, FL (August 10, 2023) – The Florida Aquarium, a leader in coral conservation and reproduction, recently added 20 additional elkhorn coral colonies from the Florida Keys to its coral breeding program at the Apollo Beach campus. This is just the latest step being taken by the Aquarium’s team of conservation biologists to address environmental challenges and critical coral conservation concerns.

“The severe bleaching event happening on Florida’s Coral Reef is disheartening for all of us who work diligently to protect and restore these corals.” said Keri O’Neil, Director & Senior Scientist for The Florida Aquarium’s Coral Conservation Program. “Our ability to not only protect the corals in our care, but also to spawn them and rear thousands of offspring, is more important than ever given the latest environmental threats these animals are facing in the wild. We will not give up on our coral conservation efforts in these challenging times.”

As record-breaking warm water temperatures continue impacting corals in the ocean, coral restoration practitioners, government agencies, and researchers have banded together to minimize coral losses through actions such as relocating corals into climate-controlled land-based care centers or into deeper and cooler ocean locations. Reef Renewal USA, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, and Coral Restoration Foundation donated elkhorn coral colonies from their nurseries off the coast of the Keys to help protect them from the warming waters, and to give them a chance to contribute to the next generation of corals born at The Florida Aquarium. In addition, several coral fragments were collected from wild colonies in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary by Mote Marine Laboratory and the University of Miami under permit to the NOAA Southeast Regional Office.

“This critically important breeding effort can only be accomplished through collaboration between numerous coral restoration partners, which in and of itself is an extraordinary achievement,” said Dr. Debborah Luke, Senior Vice President of Conservation with The Florida Aquarium.

This week, for the first time, The Florida Aquarium will attempt to produce more heat-tolerant elkhorn coral offspring. Using recent observation data from the current bleaching event, several “thermally tolerant” elkhorn coral parents were selected to breed with one another to increase the potential of producing offspring who will inherit the same ability. The genetics of the parents and offspring will be analyzed by researchers from Penn State and the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity who hope to use genomic tools to help predict offspring thermal tolerance in the future.

This effort is part of the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Reefense Project, led by the University of Miami, which has the explicit and ambitious goal of generating corals that are up to 3°C (approximately 5°F) more thermally tolerant. A team of scientists from The University of Miami, The Florida Aquarium, SECORE International, Penn State University, and the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity at the University of Oldenburg (HIFMB) are hoping to achieve this ambitious scientific goal through several novel techniques. The first aim is to produce hybrid corals from Atlantic staghorn and elkhorn corals, which was accomplished by the team in 2022 and again in 2023 from field-based spawning activities in the Florida Keys. Team members at The University of Miami will also inoculate young corals with heat-tolerant strains of the symbiotic algae that live in coral tissues, which may also help the corals resist bleaching.

In addition to the support of the critically important DARPA project, elkhorn coral offspring produced at The Florida Aquarium are also used to support Mission: Iconic Reefs. This innovative project aims to restore 7 ecologically and culturally significant reef sites covering an area of approximately 52 football fields. Ultimately, the offspring raised at The Florida Aquarium are transferred to partners for outplanting at Mission: Iconic Reefs locations.

“The Florida Aquarium’s coral spawning work is crucial to the recovery of this threatened coral and will provide new unique individuals to restoration efforts like Mission: Iconic Reefs and the DAPRA Reefense Project,” said Jennifer Moore, Protected Coral Recovery Coordinator, Southeast Region NOAA Fisheries. “Their work inspires hope that we can do something to combat the threats to Florida’s Coral Reef. I am proud to partner with The Florida Aquarium and all the organizations supporting this effort.”

The 2-Week Spawning Season is More Important Than Ever

Scientists at The Florida Aquarium began monitoring the relocated elkhorn corals on August 1, the day of the full moon. They will continue to monitor many coral species in their care, including staghorn and brain corals, for spawning activity over the next week.

“We aim to keep the corals in our lab in the best condition possible to promote healthy reproduction so that they can continue to produce offspring for many years to come.” added O’Neil. “This is critically important as it will take a long time to address the environmental challenges facing our reefs, such as climate change and local pollution.”

The Florida Aquarium’s innovative Coral Conservation Program and team of experts has made several globally-recognized advancements, including last year’s success spawning elkhorn coral in a controlled environment—for the first time anywhere.

Contact The Florida Aquarium communications@flaquarium.org

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