CARING FOR PILLAR CORALS: A SPECIES ON THE BRINK
Increasing and maintaining genetic diversity within coral ecosystems is essential for restoration efforts to be successful in the long term. We currently work with 415 coral genotypes across 11 species. Pillar coral is one of these 11 species. Pillar corals used to be abundant in the Keys, but recently they experienced an alarmingly rapid decline. They are now on the brink of a somber new classification, extinct in the wild.
Unfortunately, pillar corals in the Keys are already considered reproductively extinct because the surviving colonies are too far from one another to allow for egg fertilization. This species is also extremely susceptible to disease and has suffered tremendously at the hands of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). In an effort to save these animals, and preserve their genetic code, CRF™ was one of a handful of organizations that spearheaded an effort to collect, house, and care for pillar corals in nurseries since 2016, adding new individuals in 2019 and 2020.
Pillar coral colonies in the Keys are so big you can see them from space! Here is a side-by-side picture (with and without outlines) of where coral colonies used to be on Pickles Reef. Unfortunately, these structures no longer have living tissue and only their skeletons remain. Would you have been able to find these colonies on Google Earth?
Our nursery provides optimal conditions for survival because of the care our team provides. We can mitigate bleaching events by monitoring sea surface temperatures and adjusting the placement of our Coral Trees™ in the water column. In the case of disease, we can completely stop its spread by treating corals with medication. Our long-term goal will always focus on returning corals to their homes on the reef, but in the meantime life in our nursery is a safe home.
FRAGMENTATION FOR THE FUTURE
With the eventual goal of restoring pillar coral colonies on the reef, the growth of this species is a top priority. Because of their dwindling wild population, it is of the utmost importance that restoration groups focus on strategies to not only maintain but grow the stocks available in gene banks. To induce rapid population growth, we can fragment corals into pieces, creating multiple clones of one genotype! However, fragging pillar corals is vastly different from fragging staghorn or elkhorn corals. Our science team is working diligently to create a fragmentation technique that results in healthy new pillar coral clones.
Left: An up-close picture of one of our pillar corals in the nursery! They’re so fuzzy! Right: While cleaning our pillars corals we found a visitor! We love seeing urchins in our nursery because they help control the growth of algae that might compete with our corals. ©Ellen Hudson/Coral Restoration Foundation™
We will use multiple methods to determine the best way to foster growth of fragmented pillar corals. We are looking for a technique that encourages growth and will not stress the corals too much. Some of these methods have been used by fellow coral restoration biologists and some are novel to CRF™. Building off of our proven success with boulder coral fragmentation, many of the pillar corals will be fragmented underwater in the Tavernier Nursery. This is a proven low-stress method for fragging any of our coral species because it reduces the number of changes the corals experience during the fragmentation process. It could be compared to a doctor treating you in the comfort of your home instead of the patient having to drive to the doctor's office!
Some of our larger pillar corals may need to be fragged ex-situ (out of the water and back at our warehouses) and reinstalled on their trees the next day. This is because these corals will need to be cut using power tools. This method of fragging is widely used among conservation organizations and is a well-known procedure. Though it may seem counter intuitive to bring the corals back to land, our modes of transport for the corals are safe and the power tool method provides long term benefits. It allows us to fragment larger pieces and make cleaner cuts which minimizes open skeleton and reduces the chance of disease infection.
The science and restoration team with Coral Restoration Foundation™ secures endangered pillar corals to Coral Tree™ branches. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Once the corals are fragmented and replaced in our nursery, we will monitor them closely. Every time we visit the nursery, we will update their measurements, and take their pictures. Monitoring will help us update and improve our techniques as we learn, and eventually determine which methods are most successful.
Research and innovation are at the heart of all we do, with data driving the evolution of our restoration techniques. Our team is determined to ensure a positive future for pillar corals, and discovering the best way to increase their fragmentation success is the first step toward the recovery of a nearly extinct species.
"Talking Science" Editorial Team
Ellen graduated with a B.S. in Marine Science and a minor in Environmental Policy, Institutions, and Behavior from Rutgers University in 2017. Growing up in New Jersey, her summers were largely spent boogie-boarding and building sand castles at the Jersey shore. It was her first Discover Scuba in Bermuda at the age of 13, however, that sparked her passion for coral reefs and diving. During her undergrad at Rutgers she took part in a study abroad program in Little Cayman, where she monitored the bleaching severity of corals around the island and had her first coral nursery and outplanting experience. It was here that she learned about Coral Restoration Foundation™, and it quickly became her dream to be a part of the CRF™ team. Recently, she completed her divemaster certification and is absolutely ecstatic about joining the CRF™ team in beautiful Key Largo. She is excited to do her part to restore this amazing ecosystem and hopes to inspire others to protect and conserve it for generations to come.