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"Talking Science" in July 2019 with the New Coral Chronicles

Updated: Aug 1, 2019


In the latest collaboration with NASA and Florida International University (FIU), CRF™ sent underwater boulder Coral Trees to astronauts and other crew members from NASA and the European Space Agency.

Our Science Program Manager, Amelia Moura, and restoration Associate, Dan Burdeno, were on hand to do the land-based training, and were stationed at Mission Control to help oversee the installation.

CRF™ Science Program Manager Amelia Moura at Mission Control during NEEMO23

During the mission, the crew members lived and worked underwater alongside marine scientists at the Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat in the Florida Keys for 10 days.

NEEMO 23 gave the astronauts and their team training for space flights and other objectives related to space missions such as the International Space Station and future deep space missions to the Moon and Mars.

An integral part of these missions to other worlds involves scientific research. To support the NEEMO 23 crew training and experience they will need to explore the surfaces of other planets, astronauts installed a Coral Tree Nursery near the Aquarius Reef Base.

In a day and a half of training, the astronauts built six boulder coral trees by the base. They had to use nuts and bolts to put the trees together, rope to tie the trees to anchors, buoys to suspend them in the water column, and problem solving skills to ensure the correct sized arms were assembled with the correct trunks. This ability to task-load mimics the kinds of conditions they will be in and helps provide them the kinds of skills they will need to use while conducting research in deep space.

A crew member on the NEEMO21 mission installing a boulder coral tree. Image courtesy NASA

The astronauts placed Coral Trees at varying distances from the Aquarius Reef Base. With two species and 20 genotypes represented on these trees, FIU researchers have ample material to compare and study the growth rates of the boulder corals, the fish communities around the trees, and the amount of biofouling (plant and invertebrate life) present. This is projected to be a four year study with quarterly monitoring and in the future, this nursery will help provide vital data to coral restoration practitioners around the world.



In 2014, an alarming new coral disease broke out in the northern part of the Florida Reef Tract. It quickly became known as the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Its cause is unknown but it affects more than 20 different species of stony coral, including brain, pillar, star, and starlet corals. This multi year outbreak of SCTLD is unique due to its large geographic range, extended duration, rapid progression, high rates of mortality, and the number of species affected. Now scientists are working harder than ever to stop this disease and gain as much information as possible.

Coral species clockwise from top left: Boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans), pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus), and great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa)

University of Florida, Sea Grant, Miami-Dade County, NOAA, FWC, Callaway Marine Technologies, and the University of Miami have joined forces to utilize the Southeast Florida Action Network (SEAFAN) as a platform to respond to this massive disease event. This multi-agency rescue mission has scientists working to identify potential pathogens, environmental factors, strategies to treat diseased colonies, and identify genotypes of corals that are resistant to the disease.

Earlier this month, Ana Zangroniz, a Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent, came to our Exploration Center in Key Largo for a day of hands-on training, with a theory session followed by two dives out on Molasses Reef. Coral Restoration Foundation™ is now lending assistance to the effort with our interns acting as trained Level One Observers collecting important SCTLD data during their monitoring dives. Data we collect will be sent back to SEAFAN where it will continue to help build a better understanding of the behavior of the disease.

Paige Pilkinton (below), a first-round intern, says,“Coral disease training was an enlightening experience where we gained valuable hands on experience determining coral diseases. It was alarming, but also interesting to learn about the current stony coral disease crisis. It's great to have tools that give us something we can do to help.”



By the Numbers:

Earlier this month we returned to Carysfort Reef for our one year monitoring. We outplanted two transects of staghorn corals, one with 299 corals and with 265 corals. Our one month monitoring showed us that the first transect had a 93% survivorship, and the second transect a 78% survivorship. When we recently returned for our one year monitoring of the site, we found an expected and slight dip in that survivorship with 77% survivorship and 61% survivorship, respectively.


Survivorship is often affected by many factors such as water temperatures, predation by fireworms, human interaction, breakage from storm surge, and algae overgrowth. Due to the extended period of time, it makes sense that after one year there is a lower survivorship as these corals have been exposed to more threats. However, we also know our corals are growing and fusing together.

Seven Elkhorn corals (Acropora palmata) fused into one large coral colony at Looe Key


Fusion happens when one coral colony grows and fuses together with another colony nearby. We outplant our clusters of 10 corals of the same genotype and each, within the size of a hula-hoop to encourage fusion so they eventually become one large colony. The fusion percentages of transect one and transect two respectively went from 0% and 1% after one month to 22% and 24% after one year.

Into the Future:

Fusion affects the number of corals counted within a colony. When two corals fuse together, they become one coral colony and is recorded as such. Our current monitoring techniques do not account for this change in the number of corals, thus do not accurately reflect the percentage of survivorship. However, as we look into the future, we are switching from manual monitoring techniques to using photomosaics, where thousands of pictures are stitched together to create one large and high definition photo of the reef. Using photomosaics will allow us to calculate the surface area and overall reef coverage that we have restored, reflecting a more accurate and credible measure of reef restoration. Additionally, photomosaics will allow us to look at population dynamics instead of looking at individual outplants. As we scale up our restoration efforts it is more important to look at reef wide impacts. This also allows us to use digital monitoring instead of analog monitoring which allows for less mistakes and more accurate data.

This is a small section of a much larger photomosaic of Sombrero Reef, that shows the level of resolution we can capture, and the amount of data that we can extract from these images.

We are excited to keep watching our coral colonies grow and we will keep you updated on our two-year monitoring when that comes around!


"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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