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"Talking Science" in August 2019 with the Coral Chronicles

Updated: Sep 2, 2019


Our corals provide opportunities for scientists from around the world to further the field of research into coral sexual reproduction. Gametes collected from our corals are helping researchers better understand coral sexual reproduction to improve monitoring, to manipulate spawning events, and to create new coral genotypes.

As long-term collaborators, we have worked with the Georgia Aquarium and The Florida Aquarium on numerous coral restoration projects and past spawning events. This year, together, we explored new techniques for facilitating spawning research.

A History of Spawning with CRF™

For the past few years we have predictably observed coral spawning at our Tavernier Nursery. In the nursery, we have set aside specific genotypes of corals, leaving them to grow into large and mature corals for spawning. These are known as " brood stock" corals.

Historically, we have staged these corals in "spawning alley", where, with the assistance of Georgia Aquarium and The Florida Aquarium divers, these corals are individually “tented.” These tents are large nets designed to collect all egg/sperm bundles while excluding other small organisms that could interfere with gamete collection. Although this methodology worked well for many years it had numerous restrictions.

Divers from CRF™ and Georgia Aquarium placing coral net to capture gametes on brood stock coral in the CRF™ Tavernier Nursery. Photo credit: Alex Neufeld / Coral Restoration Foundation™

With the Tavernier Nursery located approximately three miles offshore, spawning trips were at the mercy of good conditions. Last year, inclement weather kept us on land for several nights, missing potential spawning events. In addition, we were only able to monitor a select few genotypes, never being able to fully explore the true spawning potential of the nursery.

This year, however, working with a team led by The Florida Aquarium, we moved some of our brood stock corals out of our nursery and housed them temporarily at Keys Marine Lab's land-based facility for easier observations and monitoring.

The Preparation

In preparation for spawning, on August 14th, the CRF™ team joined Georgia Aquarium divers on board Keys Diver (generously chartered by Georgia Aquarium), and headed out to our Tavernier Nursery to harvest the brood stock corals. We selected 12 genotypes of staghorn and seven genotypes of elkhorn, which were carefully removed from the nursery, tagged, and placed into large coolers on the boat for transport to KML.

Photo credit: Raquel Gilliland / Coral Restoration Foundation™

At KML, the corals were put into tanks separated by genotype. Here, they were to be monitored by Rachel Serafin, a coral biologist from the Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation. Their goal is to collect gametes for their coral propagation project, which involves cross fertilizing them to create new genotypes which has resulted in successfully raising numerous coral larvae in past years.

The Results

Typically, we expect corals to spawn three to seven days after the August full moon. But, as every scientist knows, you can rely on nature to be unpredictable; the corals at KML did not spawn for the first three predicted nights, August 18th to the 20th. These dates were identified based on past observations and published research.

However, on the night of the 21st, scientists observed the first signs of setting – gametes appearing at the mouths of the polyps. Three staghorn genotypes spawned that night at KML, followed by seven spawning on the 22nd, and nine on the 23rd, and 10 on the 24th!

Unfortunately, none of the elkhorn corals at KML spawned during the observation period.

Top to bottom, left to right: coral polyps, coral polyps staging, coral polyps spawning and releasing their gametes to the surface of the water. Photo credit: Raquel Gilliland / Coral Restoration Foundation™

Back at the Tavernier Nursery

Although corals involved in gamete collection were set up at KML, we still had work to do in our Tavernier Nursery. For the first time we were able to simply observe what other genotypes and trees would spawn in our nursery – the permanent home for multiple genotypes of Acroporid corals.

It started slowly on August 18th when one genotype spawned, followed by August 19th by two genotypes spawning, but the trickle built into a flood, climaxing on the 21st with the gametes of 20 individuals of 15 genotypes turning the nursery into a snow-globe of hope for the future of our coral reefs.

Photo credit: JD Reinbott, Dan Burdeno / Coral Restoration Foundation™

“I am so thankful I got the opportunity to see coral spawning. I was diving in the Tavernier Nursery when a tree of staghorn coral spawned around 10:30pm. Being able to witness coral spawning was magical. While I was underwater watching this spawning process, all I could think of was how beautiful it was to be able to see this natural phenomena in person. This was an incredible experience and would not have been possible without the Coral Restoration Foundation.”

- Genevieve Wilson, CRF™ Intern

Why This Matters

The larvae collected at KML have now been transferred to The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach where the new corals will be raised. Last year, The Florida Aquarium used coral gametes collected from Coral Restoration Foundation’s™ underwater coral tree nursery and created over 3,000 new genotypes by cross-breeding different corals. After raising the coral larvae for eight months, more than 1,500 new coral colonies were returned to the Coral Restoration Foundation™ Tavernier Coral Tree nursery, where they have been thriving for the last four months. These new colonies are being monitored by our Science Program, which includes tracking their health and growth rates.

The knowledge gained through these research projects is of great benefit to coral restoration and conservation efforts. Understanding spawning and supporting genetic diversity in the wild are critical components of the fight to save and restore our planet's coral reefs.

Clockwise: Collaborators and researchers laugh before getting down to business, coral gametes in falcon tubes ready to become cross-fertilized, Lisa May with NOAA and the National Ocean Service & Right-Emily Parson Graduate Student at the College of Charleston, and SEZARC cryopreservation containers. Photo credit: Raquel Gilliland /Coral Restoration Foundation™.

Thank You All

It is a privilege to collaborate with this team of experts led by the The Florida Aquarium. Other partners include Keys Marine Lab, University of South Florida/Florida Institute of Oceanography, Georgia Aquarium, College of Charleston, Nova Southeastern University, NOAA, SeaWorld, Southeast Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC), and the University of Florida.

We are thankful for another successful year of spawning and cannot wait to see what the next year brings!

Photo credit: Raquel Gilliland / Coral Restoration Foundation™

“Spawning was an unbelievable experience that I am very grateful for and will never forget. Having the opportunity to work side by side with inspirational individuals to collect gametes from endangered, wild species was thrilling. I hope the work completed during this year's spawning leads to a lot of baby corals that will one day repopulate a reef!”

- Olivia Smith, CRF™ Intern



This spawning season, CRF™ interns had the amazing opportunity to help collect gametes from an endangered coral species whose populations are in severe decline along the Florida Reef Tract. A once thriving coral species, pillar corals are found throughout the Caribbean, the southern Gulf of Mexico, and the South East region of Florida. This stony coral often resembles fingers or a cluster of cigars, growing up from the sea floor.

Our interns drove down to Key West to join Dr. Karen Neely, a researcher with NOVA Southeastern University, to assist with the collection of gametes from some of the few living colonies of pillar coral left on the Florida Reef Tract.

Pillar Coral: A Critically Endangered Species

Dr. Neely has been studying these corals since 2013. However, in a heart wrenching turn of events, pillar corals have run into a new enemy. In 2014, a disease broke out in South Florida, coined the stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). This disease is characterized by large white lesions that spread across the coral colony, killing the whole colony in as little as one day. Scientists around the world are considering this as one of the deadliest coral disease outbreaks on record and are still unsure of the origins or how best to treat it.

Presently, Dr. Neely is partnering with numerous scientists from the Florida Aquarium, Florida Wildlife Commission, the Keys Marine Laboratory, NOAA, and the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, to do all they can to protect the few pillar coral colonies left.

Science gear ready (left), CRF™ interns help load the boat (right)! Photo credit: Coral Restoration Foundation™

Male and Female Spawning

Our team joined Dr. Neely with Captain’s Corner Dive Center for two night dives to collect gametes from the few colonies left in the wild.

Pillar corals are gonochoric, meaning each colony produces either eggs or sperm. This is unlike Acroporid species that are hermaphroditic and produce both eggs and sperm. As there are so few colonies of pillar coral left, they are geographically isolated making it nearly impossible for their gametes to cross fertilize. Furthermore, even if these gametes do manage to make a new larvae, it is unlikely that they would survive due to the overall degradation of the reef and the looming threat of SCTLD.

Clockwise: CRF™ intern, Samantha Simpson, is excited to capture pillar coral gametes using the "coral condom", Dr. Karen Neely gives a dive briefing, gametes captured in bag after successful pillar coral spawning, and gametes filtered to proceed with cross fertilization. Photo credit: Coral Restoration Foundation™

Our team was sent out in buddy pairs with large three-gallon bags and a large ring connected to the opening with chip clips. This contraption is known as the “Coral Condom”. Our team waited patiently underwater watching for each colony to spawn. Without warning the colonies exploded with gametes and buddy teams rushed to push the gametes into the bags and swim back to the boat.

Once back on the boat, it was imperative to keep the sperm bags separate from the egg bags as we filtered them to increase the concentration of gametes. As we did this, other boats came to drop off buckets full of gametes that they had collected from other colonies farther along the edges of the reef. We then combined the eggs and sperms together in buckets, working quickly to make viable larvae.

Baby Unicorns

Our efforts resulted in three buckets of mixed gametes of numerous genotypes, named “Baby Unicorns,”due to the rarity of these corals. The “Baby Unicorns” were then transported to Keys Marine Laboratory before arriving at their final home at The Florida Aquarium where they will be settled and raised into baby corals!

Left to right: Final product of combined male and female pillar coral gametes and sorting containers at KML filled with pillar coral gametes. Photo credit: Coral Restoration Foundation™

This pillar coral project is of the utmost importance for potentially saving an entire coral species from extinction, and we are incredibly grateful for Dr. Neely and all of the associated partners for allowing us to be a part of this project.

Clockwise: Emily Hower, Jay Casello, Olivia Smith, Emily Williams, Forrest Courtney, Ben Edmonds, Tori Barker, Jenny Lee, Shane Gallimore, Samantha Simpson, Karen Neely. Photo credit: Coral Restoration Foundation™

“My first observation of our ocean’s increasingly elusive “unicorn” coral took place on land as I stood grounded on the other side of a tank. As a student with an interest in invertebrate adaptations and unique reproductive strategies, I was instantly captivated by the novelty of pillar coral and eager to learn more. The ability to be present in the water witnessing a phenomenon as miraculous as pillar coral spawning is an opportunity that I know not many of my peers will get the privilege to experience. Learning from Dr. Neely and being a part of the team efforts to ensure an endangered species survival was most likely the highlight of my whole summer.”

- Samantha Simpson, CRF™ Intern


"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Raquel fell in love with the ocean at a young age and decided to move to Florida to pursue her dreams of saving it. Raquel graduated in May 2018 from Stetson University in DeLand, Florida with a BS in Aquatic and Marine Biology. Raquel has been working with CRF since May 2018 and has worked as a general intern, the Dive Program Intern, and now as the Volunteer Program Intern. Raquel is excited to be a part of the CRF team and looks forward to learning more about coral restoration and living life here in paradise.

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