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"Talking Science" in February 2022 with the Coral Chronicles

2022 RESEARCH COLLABORATIONS

One of the most important ways that we can improve upon coral restoration methods and grow our global understanding of coral ecosystems is through scientific collaboration. In 2022, CRF™ worked with several groups and individuals supporting their research projects by providing access to our infrastructure, extensive coral stock, and offering field support — but, why is collaboration necessary?


Collaboration allows for specialization and supports innovation. CRF™ is a leader in the field of massive scale reef restoration but there are so many niche aspects of coral ecology it is vital to work with other experts. Successful coral reef restoration globally depends on the collaborative work of researchers, land managers, restoration practitioners, and ocean advocates. CRF™ works with leading researchers, universities, scientists, and other organizations to help answer questions that will advance our coral restoration goals. We are also in a unique position to provide investigators with corals from our nurseries, and some field support, for experimental work that aligns itself with our research priorities. In order to gain information on, say, cellular coral biology, we would need to reach out to a laboratory or organization that specializes in such.


In 2022 we gained insight on coral disease and coral bleaching through collaborative experimentation, advanced coral restoration monitoring techniques, tested various ways to house corals within our coral nurseries, learned more about the role of genetics with respect to coral resilience, and collected gametes during coral spawning for future studies.

CRF™ supports research that helps to answer questions that will advance our coral restoration goals. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™


Read on to learn about our collaborations in 2022!


Coral Disease

Ongoing research can help us better understand how to optimally mitigate the growing threat of coral diseases and give us information on how they might impact the future of our reefs.


Earlier this year, we were joined by Serena Hackerott and Dr. Eirin-Lopez of Florida International University, as well as Dr. Harmony Martell from the University of British Columbia who were looking at the potential benefits and applications of coral stress hardening within the scope of large-scale field restoration. Through the combined use of laboratory and field experiments, this study aimed to identify the potential benefits or tradeoffs associated with pre-outplanting thermal stress exposure, and through that, assess their applicability in a restoration setting.

Coral samples from a CRF™ nursery are donated to a research project run by FIU and UBC. ©Jennifer Adler for Vox.com


But that wasn’t all! In 2022 we also supported research led by Dr. Matthew Gilg from the University of North Florida on a separate project that looked at coral resiliency by genotype. This work builds upon a previous study conducted by Dr. Gilg, in which he used CRF’s genotypes to look at stress tolerance. Today, these same samples are being used for light intensity experiments.


Coral Monitoring

Throughout CRF’s history, we’ve massively improved how we monitor corals out on the reef. In the early days of our restoration efforts, our science program would have individuals fill out assessments using pen and paper underwater, randomly sampling corals of different clusters in order to gauge coral health, growth, and several other vital metrics. This methodology, however, was found to be too narrowly focused on individual corals, time-intensive, and incapable of informing population-level metrics such as area restored of coral coverage changes through time.

Today, we use photomosaics. Photomosaics are large-scale, high-resolution images that provide us with all these aforementioned metrics, and more. Photomosaics give us visual, qualitative data, and introduce a more comprehensive approach to our coral monitoring strategies. Building off the work of last year's machine learning and computer vision courses, Rick Hudson and Srijan Das of University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) led students in developing AI models able to automatically detect coral colonies in photomosaic imagery. These new technologies will ultimately help us better identify corals of varying species, size, shape, and color.

Students work with AI to identify coral species seen in photomosaic images generated by CRF™ and our new free to use mosaic pipeline CerulianAI. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™


Coral Nurseries

If you’ve ever volunteered with us, joined us on a dive program, or worked with us in the water, then you may be familiar with the infrastructure of our coral nurseries: Acroporids are hung directly from the coral trees using monofilament, whereas boulder corals are epoxied onto aragonite plugs and then fixed into mesh trays. All these nursery structures, over time, accumulate large amounts of algae, sponges, and other biofouling organisms which compete with our corals and can have a negative impact on their health. This year we began working with Michael Gerdes of Capital Coral to solve this issue, especially among the smaller boulder fragments within our nurseries.

Keeping these coral "plugs" algae free is a full time job, hopefully this research collaboration will save our team time and energy and keep our corals growing! ©Coral Restoration Foundation™


Capital Coral has provided us with several different substrate types to work with, in hopes that one of the prototypes might result in decreased settlement of other organisms, and therefore less stress on our corals. Prototypes provided by Capital Coral include plugs and tiles of varying compositions and shapes. Ideally, this research will lead to faster and more efficient propagation and outplanting efforts made by our restoration team.

Ecology

During this past August, researchers from NOAA and from SEZARC returned to the Keys again for the annual coral spawning event. This year, there was a large emphasis on selecting genotypes of corals that had not been cryopreserved before and came from geographically distant locations throughout the Florida Keys.

Coral gametes collected by NOAA researchers from CRF™ elkhorn outplants! ©Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


With the gametes collected this year, Dr. Cheryl Woodley’s team from NOAA conducted reciprocal crosses, studying the compatibility of different genotypes with one another. These gametes were also used by Dr. Linda Penfold team, of SEZARC, to continue cryopreserving new CRF™ genotypes, and the team was successful in adding 9 new genotypes to the CRF™ cryopreservation gene bank. These research projects help to inform the processes of coral spawning and safeguard CRF™ genotypes against loss due to any catastrophic weather events that might impact the Florida Keys.

Research collaborators join CRF™ in our coral nursery every year to collect coral gametes! ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

At CRF™, we have experienced the benefits of scientific collaboration. Collaboration has offered us novel perspectives, unique approaches to saving coral reefs, and incredible insights only obtained by working with external research groups and restoration practitioners. Massive issues require massive action: tackling a problem of this scale (global reef extinction) requires all hands on deck. Through unified effort, hard work, and the pursuit of knowledge, we can create a world in which our corals can not only survive but thrive!

 

"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

While Jason grew up in Westchester, NY, he would much rather consider the ocean his home. Jason lead most of his life wanting to be near the sea where he could explore Earth’s oceans and learn about marine life. After graduating from Stony Brook University with a degree in marine sciences, Jason decided to delve into the field of coral reef ecology so as to contribute to global conservation efforts and aid in the preservation of our planet. When he’s not in the water, Jason spends most of his time bouldering, snowboarding, making music, and writing. Beyond anything else, Jason finds purpose in making our planet a better, safer, and more enjoyable place for all of its constituents.


Coral Chronicles Editor

Madalen Howard is CRF's Communications and Outreach Coordinator. 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, marketing and digital communications.

With CRF™ Madalen creates inclusive pathways to scientific discovery through content creation and by building and fostering relationships with press, digital media creators, and local community members. Throughout her life Madalen has had a skill connecting people with nature, and is excited to bring people into the world of coral restoration.


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