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The Florida Aquarium’s coral experts returned from a coral health assessment trip in the Florida Keys last month with devastating news – Florida’s pillar coral, a threatened coral species, is on the brink of local extinction. But, not all hope is lost. Coral experts from The Florida Aquarium and other partners are actively working to protect and preserve this coral species.
On the trip coordinated by coral biologist Karen Neely of Nova Southeastern University (NSU), divers discovered that many of the visited pillar coral sites contained large die-offs of pillar coral and other species since the last assessment in February 2017.
“We’ve known for several years that pillar coral in particular has been struggling to thrive due to many environmental stressors, including high water temperature and bleaching events, so it is not surprising that some may be dying, but recurrent monitoring of these corals just over the last two years has shown us how dire this situation really is,” said Kathy Heym, Director of Animal Health at The Florida Aquarium.
Pillar coral is a beautiful and rare coral species that grows throughout the Caribbean. The few pillar coral colonies that live in the Florida Keys are under attack by what scientists are referring to as white plague-like syndrome. Once the disease infects the coral, that coral could potentially be lost forever.
The current spread of this white plague-like syndrome is the largest scientists have seen on Florida’s reefs and is putting the entire species of pillar coral located on the world's third-largest barrier reef at risk of local extinction.
That is why for the last two years The Florida Aquarium has joined the pillar coral ‘genetic rescue’ project, which was created by Neely and Cindy Lewis (Florida International University & Keys Marine Lab) in November 2015. Other project partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Keys Marine Laboratory, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Coral Restoration Foundation, and Mote Marine Laboratory.
This project aims to deploy scientific divers to perform health assessments on known pillar coral colonies, take photos and collect live coral fragments that are taken to land-based nurseries with the goal of protecting these rare individuals and learning more about how to protect them or even stop the disease in the future.
The Florida Aquarium is one of five organizations that hold the species in its land-based nursery and holds some of the last remaining fragments of several genetically distinct pillar coral individuals that no longer exist in the wild.
“What we are doing for this species at our land-based nursery with our partners is incredibly relevant - it's real time conservation of a species that could potentially be extinct in our region in the very near future,” Heym said.
On the most recent trip from April 16-20, the team of scientific divers assessed a total of 54 sites from Carysfort Reef in the Upper Keys (near Key Largo) down to Marker 32 in the Lower Keys (near Key West) and found that the disease has spread from the northern end of the reef and is making its way down to the southern part of the reef.
The vast majority of colonies from Carysfort Reef through Looe Key were dead or nearly dead with active disease.
“Many of the pillar corals we assessed in the upper Keys last February are now gone,” Heym said. “Aside from disease, the other compounding factor here that has impacted these corals is Hurricane Irma - we were unable to locate a number of the known pillar coral colonies, which may have been due to being toppled over and buried in the sand during that storm. Irma definitely caused a setback for coral health and restoration efforts, but it is not the end.”
Some of the sites at Looe Key and the southern part of the reef had healthy pillar corals, and scientists are working tirelessly to learn about and stop this disease before it is too late.
The team collected a total of 34 fragments from 16 colonies to be transferred to land-based nurseries. Of those, 17 were actively diseased and were transferred to NOAA's lab in Charleston for disease treatment research, and 17 were healthy with no active disease and were sent to The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation for long-term protection and research. Safely removing and housing these fragments of coral is critical to the survival of Florida’s pillar coral.
At the Center for Conservation, The Florida Aquarium coral expert Keri O’Neil is working with NOAA on a paste-like material, mixed with antibiotics and other binding agents, to help stop this white plague-like disease in a laboratory setting. The Florida Aquarium has also teamed up with local drug development company CoreRx to custom tailor a formula that can be used to treat diseased corals.
“The issue is this disease spreads at a very rapid rate, and many treatment methods traditionally used on corals are not effective.” O’Neil said. “We are working on finding a combination of products that can be used as a drug delivery system to treat corals in the laboratory. We have a pretty successful formula that works in the lab, but we are also trying to tweak that formula so that it can potentially be used to treat corals in the wild.”
Right now, this treatment method is only applicable to corals in land-based nurseries, but the hope is that these experiments will shed light on what is happening out on the reef and what scientists can do to stop pillar corals from becoming extinct on the world's third-largest barrier reef.