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"Talking Science" in March 2020 with the Coral Chronicles

Updated: Mar 5, 2020


We’ve been hard at work this week keeping up with CRF’s pillar coral colonies. If you read our last pillar coral update, you’ll remember that fellow intern Krista and I have been looking after the pillar corals and tracking their growth. Now, after another four months of monitoring, we’re ready to share another update.

The good news is that our colonies are growing! In the six months that Krista and I have been looking after the pillar corals, we’ve seen them slowly but surely add new tissue, with a few genotypes in particular really taking off. Here’s our latest photo:

Pillar coral in CRF™ Coral Nursery. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

The extra few square centimeters of growth since our last update may not look like much, but for a species that can take many years to reach maturity, it’s a really strong showing. If we keep seeing promising growth rates, it could be a sign that it’s time to start thinking about propagation.

“We've been working very closely with the pillar corals for five months. While this species grows much slower than acroporids, it's been exciting to see them overgrow the tiles and begin to grow upwards!" said Krista, CRF™ Intern. "While we know plenty about acroporids, we still have much to learn about this fuzzy species in order to increase coral diversity on our restoration sites. Our work is taking the first step towards that goal!”

CRF™ Intern Nik applying medicinal treatment to coral. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

What’s proven trickier than growing the corals themselves has been quantifying how fast they’re growing. There are lots and lots (and lots) of ways to measure the size of a coral, but most of them involve killing the coral sample. There are a few non-invasive methods, but we’ve had less than ideal luck using them as free floating divers on crowded, swinging coral trees.

CRF™ Intern Krista taking freehand photos of coral. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

For the past few months, Krista and I have been workshopping different solutions to this problem. Ideally, we’re hoping to create a procedure for quickly and easily measuring the size of the colonies on the tree without damaging any of the corals.

As of now, we’re collecting direct measurements of the corals with calipers, and taking multiple images of each coral by hand and with a fixed photo rig. Once we’ve collected data for a few months with each of these methods, we’ll be able to judge which is the best choice for tracking the growth of the colonies.

Photo rig on a Coral Tree. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

As Krista and I look towards the end of our internships, we’re hoping to pool everything we’ve learned about these corals into a single document that other restoration groups can refer to as they grow pillar corals in the ocean. As we work more with this species, both at CRF™ and across the keys, our restoration strategies will become more refined, laying the foundation for a new generation of pillar corals in Florida.



As part of NOAA and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's (FKNMS) Mission: Iconic Reefs plan, CRF™ is gearing up to begin major restoration work at Cheeca Rocks. In 2020, we’ve committed to planting 200 staghorn corals and 300 boulder corals, laying the groundwork for future restoration work in the coming years.

Off the coast of Islamorada, Cheeca Rocks is one of the healthiest reefs left in the Keys. Our field surveys of the site have found some of the highest coral coverage that we’ve seen anywhere on the Florida Reef Tract. This reef may be one of the last of its kind in the area, meaning that it’s critical to preserve and restore it as much as possible before its species diversity is lost.

Boulder coral at Cheeca Rocks. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

Cheeca Rocks is comprised of five separate reef patches in shallow water, dominated by massive coral species. The reef has a particularly strong population of healthy boulder corals, and we’ll be targeting this species especially as we design our outplanting strategy. We’ve identified a patch with several wild boulder colonies and plenty of clean substrate to outplant, making it an ideal area for restoration.

"Cheeca Rocks is a really critical reef right now because it still has such a high level of coral coverage," said Alex Neufeld, CRF™ Special Projects Manager. "A lot of large reef fish depend on it for habitat, especially grunts and snappers. It’s crucial for these species that we maintain this habitat for future generations.”

Stay tuned for more updates as we continue to survey Cheeca Rocks and begin to outplant our first corals!

Mission: Iconic Reefs is one of the largest investments in reef restoration in the world. Learn more about it here.



As interns with the CRF™ science program, we spend a lot of our day looking at long lists of numbers. Between monitoring reports, outplanting records, and survivorship calculations, it's a lot of data to crunch, especially following our heavy outplanting season. Throw in excel’s unforgiving font size, and it’s enough to send a young intern reaching for a new pair of glasses.

But every now and then, we get some data that’s actually easy on the eyes. This is definitely true of our new Carysfort photomosaic, a lovingly rendered high-resolution image that captures all of our restoration work at the site over the past month. Isn’t it beautiful?

Carysfort Photomosaic. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

This mosaic captures a few different projects at once: our NOAA restoration outplants, corals outplanted by dive programs, and the new, sexually propagated colonies that we grew with the Florida Aquarium. It’s a bit of a family photo, as all of these corals from different programs at CRF™ grow together to revitalize the ecosystem.

To calculate the total area of reef restored, one of our diligent and enthusiastic interns (yours truly) traces each individual coral using our imaging software. The software then calculates the total traced area, giving us the coral coverage at the site. The finished result looks like this:

Carysfort mosaic traced. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

Calculating the area of reef restored leads to even more numbers, spreadsheets, equations and reports as we unpack the data and try to make sense of it. But before we dive headfirst back into the statistics, it’s a nice change of pace to work with some data that’s a little more stylish.


"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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