"Talking Science"...again in March 2021 with the Coral Chronicles

Updated: Mar 31

PILLAR CORAL PROPAGATION

2 MONTH UPDATE

We have more than doubled the population of pillar corals in our offshore nursery! Using coral’s natural asexual reproduction to their advantage, we cut our large pillar corals into several smaller fragments. To learn more about this process and the different tools we used, check out our previous Talking Science Article!

Larger pillar corals are fragmented ex-situ at CRF™ headquarters. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Our Science Team is happy to announce ALL the pillar corals survived fragmentation! Our team was particularly interested to observe the corals fragmented ex-situ, meaning on dry land. After fragmentation and upon their return to our nursery they were showing visible

stress in response to the long day they had away from their home.

Since then, however, they have fully recovered, and the only reminder of their trip is the increase in pillar fragments we are now growing! Not only are these corals healthy but many are growing over the epoxy used to attach them to our coral trees!

©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation


MONITORING FRAGMENTED PILLAR CORAL GROWTH

Our Restoration and Science Teams are researching methods of pillar coral fragmentation that will be the best for us to use in the future. This means collecting thousands of data points by measuring the growth of fragmented corals!


Through the process we knew there would be many questions one of which is,

“How do we measure growth rates for abnormally shaped coral?”

Borrowing tools from other trades has proven to be our best solution! The Engineers Depth Gage is the best tool to measure height, while calipers accurately measure maximum diameter and width.

CRF™ Restoration Associate Nikkie Cox uses calipers to measure diameter and width of newly fragmented pillar corals. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Another consideration is the wet and salty environment in which we operate. It is important that our tools can hold up over time. We look for tools made from stainless steel, plastic and

aluminum that can measure those oddly shaped corals. While we are measuring the corals, we also check for diseases and take pictures, inputting this information into a database so we can visualize growth over time.


*Our pillar coral propagation research and development is funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, NOAA and Aramco Americas and functions as part of Mission: Iconinc Reefs.

MONITORING CORALS TO MAXIMIZE REEF HEALTH


Algal Competition

Corals face many stressors on the reef, from disease and bleaching to competition and predation. One stressor of great interest to our science team is competition: plants and animals struggling for the same resources such as space and nutrients.

The limestone remains of past reef building corals slowly erode away and become covered in layers of algae. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Coral reefs in the Florida Keys and around the world used to be dominated by large reef building coral such as staghorn and elkhorn. In the 1980s, Florida’s Coral Reef saw the beginning of a phase shift to an algal-dominated reef due to a number of factors. One of the most prevalent was plummeting populations of herbivores, the algae eaters!


It is hard for slow-growing coral to compete for space with the fast-growing algae that now

coats many reef sites. However, the competition is not totally one sided. Corals have defense mechanisms to protect their territory, and will even take the offensive given the chance!

Nematocysts or stinging cells inside the corals tentacles’ protect them from predation. Nematocysts are also the cells in jellyfish that sting unsuspecting beachgoers! Mesenterial filaments are thread like extensions of the coral’s internal tissue. They are filled with nematocysts, and some corals use them to attack and dissolve encroaching algae! Using any defense mechanism requires energy from corals that could be used for growth or reproduction instead. To give our coral outplants the best chance of surviving and growing in the wild as we return corals to the reef we remove competitors like algae from their immediate vicinity.


Left: Algae growing on a monofilament line attaching a coral to a Coral Tree™ in our nursery. Right: Algae growing on the reef next to elkhorn corals outplants. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™


Eliminating forms of competition gives restored coral a chance to establish itself on the reef. The corals will use all their energy for growth and not waste it defending their territory from intruders, furthering our ultimate goal to return the reef to a healthy state, dominated by habitat building coral!

"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

Charis grew up in Michigan where her curiosity for the underwater world started in the local rivers and lakes. She always had a passion for marine biology. While she was in high school, her family unexpectedly had to relocate to coastal Georgia. Moving across the country allowed her to pursue her passion. After learning about the threats and harm humans have caused to coral reefs, she decided she did not want to just study coral reefs, but she wanted to be a part of the solution.

Charis is a recent graduate from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a M.S. in Biotechnology and a concentration in Molecular Biotechnology. She received her B.S. in Biology with a concentration in Coastal Ecology from the College of Coastal Georgia in 2017. She is a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor and has enjoyed working as a dive professional in the British Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys. Charis is excited to intern with CRF™ because she is passionate about educating the public on how to protect our oceans.


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