CNN Exclusive: Scientists make big strides in race to save Caribbean coral reefs

It’s a historic step forward, and they hope it can help revitalize the Caribbean ecosystem and give back to humans by providing greater protection from the ravages of hurricanes.

Elkhorn corals once dominated the Caribbean Sea. But just as other important coral ecosystems are being degraded around the world, moose are rarely seen alive in the wild. This species is very important as it provides the building blocks for coral reefs to thrive, but has been known to be difficult to grow in aquariums.

So scientists were thrilled to learn that the reproductive experiment was a success.

“When it finally happens, the first feeling is just a relief,” said senior scientist Keri O’Neill, who oversees the spawning lab at the Tampa Aquarium. “This is an important step to prevent Elkhorn and his corals from going extinct in Florida.”

O’Neill’s colleagues call her the “Coral Whisperer” because she was able to spawn so many different types of coral. Elkhorn is her 14th species in the aquarium to spawn inside the Apollo Beach laboratory, but the team ranks it as the most important to date.

O’Neill estimates there are only about 300 Elkhorn corals left in the Florida Keys Reef Tract, but spawning experiments have spawned thousands of baby corals. She expects up to 100 of hers to survive to adulthood.

Named for their resemblance to elk antlers, the corals thrive in the tops of reefs where they usually grow in less than 20 feet of water. This makes their colonies important for breaking big waves. During the peak of hurricane season, coral reefs are silent and powerful allies that protect Florida’s coastline from storm surges that grow as sea levels rise.

“When these reefs die, erosion sets in, and we lose not only coastal protection, but all the habitat these reefs provide for fish and other species,” O’Neill said. No, there are some scattered colonies, but we are serious about restoring elk coral populations for coastal protection.”

The Florida Aquarium news came after scientists reported in early August. Great Barrier Reef It showed the highest coral coverage in 36 years.But the outlook for corals around the world is grim — study suggests that the climate crisis kill all coral reefs on earth by the end of the century.

Elkhorn corals were declared endangered by the federal government in 2006 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act after scientists found that disease had reduced populations by 97% since the 1980s . And ocean warming is its greatest threat. As sea temperatures rise, corals expel the symbiotic algae that live and produce nutrients within. This is the process of coral bleaching, which usually leads to coral death.

“They are dying all over the world,” O’Neill told CNN. “We are now at the point where they may never be the same. We can’t help but expect the oceans to heat up every summer and have an impact.”

“You know that’s impossible, right?”

Elkhorn corals seem to have something similar to fertility problems. Its breeding is sporadic in the wild, and it is difficult to sustain the much-needed increase in population. Due to their low reproductive rate, they also have very low genetic diversity and are susceptible to disease.

“I would say they are successful in having sex, but they are not successful in making babies. [in the wild]’ said O’Neill. If you have an endangered panda or chimpanzee, the first thing to do is start a breeding program, but coral breeding is very strange. ”

The most difficult task for O’Neil’s team was the unprecedented task of spawning corals in the lab. O’Neil said other researchers doubted they could pull it off.

“We faced a lot of criticism from people,” she said. They’ll say, “‘You can’t put that in a tank. You can’t do that.'”

they were right. at first.

Elkhorn corals spawn only once a year. In the lab’s 2021 experiment, the environment was tightly controlled to mimic natural conditions. We used LED lights to accurately mimic sunrises, sunsets and moon cycles. But the coral did not spawn.

“We noticed that the timing of the moonrise was off by about three hours,” O’Neill said.

After a frustrating setback, aquarium scientists learned they could have done better this year. And with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, in his August, the Florida Aquarium accomplished what some of its peers thought impossible.

Microscopic image of spawning baby corals at the Florida Aquarium.

Spawning could be a game changer, making corals more resilient to the dramatic changes wrought by the climate crisis, according to Thomas Fraser, dean of the University of South Florida’s Department of Marine Science. It may lead to a certain future.

“This kind of work is really important,” Fraser told CNN. “For example, corals selected for recovery may be more resistant to warming and bleaching, exhibit skeletal properties that can withstand more intense wave energy, or be more resistant to disease and other environmental stressors.” It may also exhibit resistance-enhancing properties.”

Margeret W. Miller is a coral ecologist who has worked in restoration research for over 20 years. In her 2020 co-author, Miller notes that Elkhorn’s reproductive rates in Upper Florida Her Keys are so low that the species is already “functionally extinct” and that from 6 she is 12 years old. It indicates that they may become extinct.

Miller said the Florida Aquarium’s breakthrough opens new doors for tackling larger-scale restoration efforts.

“Since this species is an important restoration target, its ability to spawn under human care may be an indication of interventions to make restoration efforts more resilient to climate change and other environmental threats.” It opens up a lot of research opportunities for us to develop,” Miller told CNN.

A researcher working with newly spawned coral in an aquarium.

Miller said more research is needed to confirm that laboratory-spawning elkhorn corals are reasonably safe and effective and that they can be used to protect the species.

“Captive spawning of this species is not a tool that directly addresses widespread coral restoration on a global scale that matches the scale of the need. Indeed, current coral restoration efforts have not met that scale. “Nothing is truly successful unless we take it seriously and take action to ensure that reef habitat remains viable for corals to thrive,” Miller told CNN.

The climate crisis is the ultimate problem that must be solved, Miller said. A rapid rise in seawater temperature must be addressed along with the threat to water quality. Still, the ability to grow elk in a lab is a key tool in the restoration effort, she said.

“However, research into coral reproduction and interventions enabled by captive spawning efforts can buy time to effectively make such changes before corals disappear entirely from reefs,” Miller said. said.

purchase time

Elkhorn branches can grow up to 5 inches per year, making it one of the fastest growing species of coral. According to NOAAElkhorn coral babies take three to five years to reach sexual maturity, as observed by scientists at the Florida Aquarium.

Within a year or two, scientists plan to repopulate the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with these lab-grown corals.

In the race to restore coral reefs, scientists agree this breakthrough is just the first step.

“We’re really buying our time,” O’Neill said. “I buy time for the reef. I buy time for the coral.”

The ultimate goal is a breeding program in which scientists select genetic diversity to breed more resilient corals that can withstand threats such as pollution, ocean warming and disease.

Then nature can take the wheel.

“There is hope in the reef,” said O’Neill. “Don’t give up hope. All is not lost. But we need to make big changes to save this planet.”


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