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"Talking Science" in February 2020 with the Coral Chronicles


This month, we’ve been hard at work analyzing our 2019 monitoring data. Over the past year, we’ve spent hundreds of hours underwater monitoring the health and survivorship of our corals. Now that all the data is in, we’re starting to get a picture of how our newest outplants are doing in their first months out of the nursery.

Let’s take a look at Horseshoe Reef, one of our mid-sized restoration sites, as an example. To calculate the total area of reef restored, we took a photomosaic of Horseshoe Reef at the time of outplanting and traced the area of each coral in our image analysis software. By individually tracking our outplants, we found that they covered 0.71 square meters of reef.

One month after elkhorn outplanting. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

Two months later, we returned to Horseshoe and took a second mosaic, capturing the same colonies and any natural fragmentation that may have occurred. After just one month, our colonies had grown to cover 0.86 square meters of reef. That's a 20% increase. While this figure may feel small now, this is a huge change for the reef, and demonstrates the power of our restoration strategies even over this very short timescale.

At the same time, we outplanted staghorn colonies at Horseshoe Reef. We planted about half as individual colonies using our traditional epoxy method and the other half using our novel outplant rope technique. Initially, these colonies covered 1.8 square meters of reef. When we returned for our follow-up, these colonies covered 1.7 square meters, a slight decrease. We’ll be watching closely over the next year to see how the coral coverage changes, but we can already see the advantage of outplanting using the rope method - our initial footprint of outplanted colonies is much larger.

One month after staghorn outplanting. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

This data is especially useful as we continue to explore new outplanting techniques. The novel outplant colonies at Horseshoe are secured with a biodegradable hemp rope which holds them onto the reef surface. This rope method is much more efficient than outplanting with hammers and epoxy as it greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to secure a single colony to the reef. These colonies will be the first of many outplanted with hemp rope this year.

Staghorn coral attached to the reef using our novel rope method.

©Coral Restoration Foundation™

“We’re super excited by what’s happening with the novel outplants,” said Alex Neufeld, CRF™ Special Projects Coordinator. “We’re already seeing the colonies start to attach to the reef substrate, which is the first step in the coral becoming self sufficient. If they continue to do well, it could have a big effect on our restoration strategy.”

All of this is encouraging, but the analysis is far from over. Over the next few weeks, we’ll dive deeper into the data and get a complete picture of our corals' health. Keep checking back as we feature more reef sites in the coral chronicles!



Jessica Levy, our own Restoration Program Manager, hosted our latest Sips & Science feature. For years, Jessica has been the driving force behind the largest coral restoration initiative in the world. Last Wednesday, she discussed CRF’s restoration strategy and outlined the next steps to scale up our work in 2020.

Jessica Levy at Sips & Science. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

CRF™'s goal of scaling up is at the center of Jessica’s vision for the future of the organization. Our nursery is by far the largest of its kind, but our work is limited by how nursery corals can be outplanted. In an area as affected by recreational use and other external factors, it is difficult to keep up with the rate of environmental decline in the Florida Keys. Anything less than restoration on a large scale will not make a significant impact.

“The scale that we are operating at is unprecedented. It’s absolutely amazing. But it’s still not enough. It’s not quite as bad as a drop in the bucket, but we still need to do more,” Jessica Levy explained. “And I know that anyone who experienced how ridiculously hard we worked last summer might feel like we can’t go any further. This why we need to begin to shift our focus to innovation.”

Jessica Levy (right), with CRF™ Lead Interns Sabine von Lersner (left) and Ellen Hudson (middle) at Sips & Science. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

The solution, to Levy, lies in fine tuning our restoration methods to ensure that we’re outplanting as efficiently as possible. Small changes, such as outplanting in clusters of 50 instead of 10, can result in a big difference.

Levy also stressed the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to restoration, and including voices beyond coral ecologists, biologists and practitioners.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with engineers, and they have ideas that we would have never come up with. That’s what this field needs,” said Levy.

Creating these new innovations is a daunting prospect, but it’s also quite exciting. Levy and the CRF™ team are working at the cutting edge of reef restoration, and the changes we make in the next few years will continue to shape the field of coral restoration around the world.

Attendees of Sips & Science discuss Levy's talk. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

You can listen to Jess Levy’s full presentation here. We host Sips & Science every third Wednesday - keep an eye for them on our events page.



Barry Hicks, one of our 2019 collaborators, recently appeared in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering!

The paper that he and his collaborators wrote titled “Using Scuba for In Situ Determination of Chlorophyll Distributions in Corals by Underwater Near Infrared Fluorescence Imaging" explores new and efficient ways of mapping chlorophyll and fluorescent proteins (GFPs) within a coral colony.

Determining where chlorophyll is distributed in a coral is typically very difficult, as the fluorescent red light that chlorophyll emits is masked by other red pigments in the coral. However, by selectively imaging only the lowest frequency wavelengths emitted by the chlorophyll (NIR, or near-infrared wavelengths), the authors were able to clear picture of the distribution of chlorophyll and fluorescent proteins.

Barry Hicks. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Academy

The team imaged corals in the Caribbean, Egyptian Red Sea, Indonesian Dampier Strait and in CRF™’s own coral nursery. Below two meters, they were able to measure NIR chlorophyll fluorescence in broad daylight, capturing clear images of one of our Montastrea cavernosa colonies. Typically, this imaging is only attempted in laboratory aquaria, so the ability to image hundreds of corals directly on the reef is an enormous milestone.

The authors found that each species they tested had a unique chlorophyll distribution. They are now examining the ways in which chlorophyll and other fluorescent proteins within the coral interact. This relationship could reveal the role that chlorophyll and GFPs play in coral bleaching, and give us new insight into corals’ complex relationship with its symbiotic algae.

The team’s imaging was done with inexpensive and commercially available cameras and equipment, which makes it a strong candidate for citizen science applications. Conscientious divers could image large sections of reef on their own time, quickly generating ecosystem level data on chlorophyll and GFP distribution.

CRF™ would like to congratulate Barry Hicks and his collaborators for their groundbreaking work. We’re looking forward to hearing more as Hick's continues his work.


"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

Nik is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied English and environmental science. He grew up in Virginia, and first learned to dive on a family trip to the US Virgin Islands in 2011. During college, he travelled to Bocas Del Toro, Panama to study ocean acidification with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Nik is very happy to be contributing to the Coral Restoration Foundation™’s important work, and hopes to make a positive impact on the Keys’ marine communities both on land and in the water.

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