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"Talking Science" in August 2021 with the Coral Chronicles

Updated: Sep 7, 2021


Our elkhorn corals are taking a DNA test, along with 480 of their friends! CRF™ and NOAA are coordinating a regional effort to sequence the genes of all elkhorn corals studied by restoration and research groups in Florida and the Caribbean. This regional sequencing effort is made possible by funding from NOAA's Restoration Center.

The goal of this unprecedented project is to create a fuller picture of the total diversity of elkhorn corals within the area. The data emerging from genetic sequencing will inform future restoration and management decisions and provide tremendous insight for restoration groups throughout the Caribbean!

Coral Restoration Foundation™'s Science Team samples their entire bank of elkhorn corals for genetic sequencing. ©Dana McConnel/Coral Restoration Foundation™

Preserving and understanding coral diversity is crucial to restoration efforts. Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, comparable to tropical rainforests. Diverse ecosystems are resilient to stressors. Resiliency comes from evolution's ability to naturally select from a diverse wild population. Without a genetically diverse wild

population, evolution's selective power in the face of environmental change is limited, and the population's resiliency is lessened putting reefs at greater risk of disease epidemics and mortality events. This foreknowledge informs restoration decisions and helps to ensure the continued success of our collective efforts.

To any of our dedicated Talking Science readers out there, you might remember that last summer we sequenced all the genotypes of our staghorn corals. Read all about that in our September 2020 Issue.

This year’s project takes sequencing to a new level because CRF™ has brought together multiple organizations sequencing hundreds of corals to further research for all coral scientists!

To begin the process of genetic sequencing our Science Team headed into the field! They sampled tissue from all the elkhorn genotypes currently housed in our open ocean nurseries. They collected and preserved over 100 samples in just 2 days! The tiny coral fragments, no larger than your pinky nail, were meticulously placed into pre-labelled cryovials filled with non-denatured ethanol; sealed test tubes filled with rubbing alcohol. Once they finished collecting and preserving them, they packaged and sent them off to be processed by the laboratory testing facility Eurofins where they will use a type of genetic sequencing called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) analysis.

Science Program Intern Elly Perez samples and labels elkhorn corals for genetic seqencing. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

By doing such analyses, we gain a greater understanding of the diversity found within our nurseries. Each genotype in our nursery is an individual originally collected from the wild and brought to our nursery. Genetic sequencing helps us understand the relationships of one coral to another. The result of this massive genetic sequencing undertaking will open doors to further coral research and innovation in restoration techniques which could lead to more successful reef recovery!

CRF™ has coordinated a regional effort to sequence the genes of all elkhorn corals studied by restoration and research groups in Florida and the Caribbean. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™



Three of our first-round interns—Kendall, Ana, and Adeline —have been conducting a project focused on the process of monitoring our resident pillar corals, Dendrogyra cylindrus. For any of our new readers, pillar coral is a highly endangered species sometimes referred to as the unicorns of the reef, there are fewer than 100 wild colonies left on Florida’s Coral Reef!

A pillar coral living in a Coral Restoration Foundation™ open ocean nursery. ©Shane Gallimore/Coral Restoration Foundation™

In October of 2020 CRF™ began a research project, part of a collaborative effort across various institutions, aimed at preserving the species against Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) which has ravaged colonies throughout Florida and the Caribbean since 2015. We

fragmented large colonies into multiple smaller colonies using in-situ and ex-situ methods. The corals all survived their initial fragmentation and have been living in our Tavernier Nursery! To read more about the initial fragmentation, check out our December 2020 Issue.

The loss of this species could be devastating because, like many hard corals, pillar corals contribute to the reef’s overall structure, provide a safe refuge for fish, and protect the coastline against storm surge.

CRF’s Science Program Manager Amelia Moura recently organized a SCTLD workshop to train our team in how to identify SCTLD among pillars corals. If we spot any signs of SCTLD on our pillar corals we apply antibiotics to the diseased tissue which can heal and stop the spread, saving the colony.

Science Program Manager Amelia Moura uses old coral skeletons to teach interns how to properly apply antibiotic treatment to diseased corals. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

“Being able to work with these corals underwater has been nothing short of remarkable. Though they grow slowly, they are hard to miss with their fingerlike structure and extended polyps that make them look furry. Throughout this project, I have learned how to lead a research team underwater and the importance of flexibility when conducting fieldwork,” says intern Kendall Fitzgerald.

During a recent monitoring dive, Kendall and Ana consolidated pillar coral fragments from two of our Coral Trees™ into one. While they had not previously done replacement to this degree, it was a great learning experience, challenging the

m to ensure that all fragments were properly labeled and recorded before being placed on new trays. As is important with all underwater research it was vital to produce a plan of action before diving down to begin the relocation. Once underwater, divers are limited by time and communication. Submerging with a well thought out plan led to an organized and successful dive day!

“I feel extremely privileged to not only observe these corals in our nursery but also to learn more about the vital roles that pillar corals play in the overall health of coral reefs here in the Florida Keys and spread that message to the local community,” says intern Ana Ramos.

CRF™ Intern Ana labels and organizes pillar coral trays in-situ. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

Because of stressors like SCTLD, these corals are at risk of going extinct. The urgency that is required to reverse this threat cannot be understated and playing a role in their conservation is a highlight for many on the CRF™ team. We are looking forward to continuing to care for these pillar corals in our open ocean nursery and working toward a day when they can be returned to the reef!



After a long year of being closed, the doors to our Exploration Center are finally open again! Come in and discover a visually stunning way to learn about our reefs without getting wet. Swing by the CRF Exploration Center, 5 Seagate Blvd in Key Largo,  for more information about how to get involved!


You can now participate in a fulfilling week at the Dumaguete Atlantis Dive Resort in The Philippines! Click here to learn all about this amazing new opportunity!


You can still explore all of the incredible content we've curated for you from an original coral reef rap song, to discussions on the future of coral restoration! It's all right HERE!!!


"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

Elly Perez

Despite growing up in the landlocked state of Indiana, Elly always seemed to find her way back to the ocean. With yearly trips to Vieques, an island municipality of Puerto Rico, she fell in love with the reefs and most of all, took notice of their continuous degradation year by year. This instilled in her a passion for ocean conservation that still continues todays. A recent graduate from Indiana University, she received her B.S. in Environmental Science and a certificate in Underwater Resource Management. Her involvement with and support from the Center for Underwater Science at Indiana University further established her passion for marine conservation and underwater science. Throughout her undergraduate she spent time diving abroad in the Dominican Republic, working as a research assistant, and in Indonesia, where she completed her divemaster while studying shark conservation. After graduating in 2019, she took a job working with the nesting loggerhead sea turtles along the Georgia Coast. While she thoroughly enjoyed this work, her heart was longing to return to the ocean! Elly is extremely excited to join the CRF team and do her part in the conservation of our reefs.

"Coral Chronicles" Editoral Intern

Tessa Markham is a recent graduate of Skidmore College, with a BA in English and

Environmental Studies. She grew up in Wilton, in southwestern Connecticut, but spent her summers growing up either hiking and camping in the woods or swimming and sailing on the water. She has always been passionate about climate change and conservation. Diving for the first time in 2014 while taking a marine conservation course in the Caribbean leeward islands, she quickly amassed dives and got her PADI Instructor certification just three years later. Just after completing her instructor training, she spent nearly a month on the Yucatan Peninsula conducting research on their reefs, looking at the ratio of soft versus stony coral death. She later channeled her distress at the degradation of the reefs to write a short story about coral bleaching, which was published in Volume 5 of the Oakland Arts Review in 2020. Her capstone thesis built on this theme and she wrote a collection of four creative short stories that detail and exemplify climate change-induced environmental damage through a narrative lens. She aims to combine her degrees and experiences to make a career in science communications, making research and conservation accessible to everybody.


Madalen Howard is CRF's Marketing Associate. Madalen comes to CRF™ via a winding road from the Tennessee hills, to the South Carolina low country, ending here in Florida’s Coral Reef. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Marine Biology and a Minor in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston in 2016. Her experience ranges from field research to education, and communications.

Madalen spent the last 4 years as a Field Instructor and Social Media Strategist for MarineLab Environmental Education Center. Here she was able to study and teach marine ecology, while snorkeling through mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs every day. While at MarineLab she combined her education and research background, entered the world of communications, and developed MarineLab’s social media department from the ground up.

Throughout her life Madalen has had a skill connecting people with nature. With CRF™, she is excited to bring people into the world of coral restoration, creating inclusive pathways to scientific discovery.

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