PILLAR CORAL PROPAGATION
THE PRESERVATION OF A SPECIES
Pillar coral is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and Threatened under the US Endangered Species act. CRF™ is one group of many in a large pillar coral rescue effort, who are caring for and working to restore pillar coral on Florida’s Coral Reef.
Coral Restoration Foundation™ Science Team Divers work with pillar corals in our open ocean nursery. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Since 2016, we have cared for pillar corals in our offshore nursery in Taverner, Florida. But why does this species need our help? An 88% population loss of pillar corals has been observed over the past 7 years. The cause is linked to the rapid spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) through Florida’s Coral Reef. This disease kills the living tissue on stony corals in just a few weeks to months!
A wild pillar coral colony experiences degradation after contracting Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Fortunately, restoration scientists have noticed. Mission: Iconic Reefs, NOAA’s plan for restoration at seven Florida Keys reefs, calls for the inclusion of pillar coral in an ecosystem wide restoration strategy. With so few pillar corals remaining steps need to be taken to increase their populations.
This is where our Science team comes into play. We have begun to use asexual reproduction (aka fragmentation) to increase the population of pillar coral in our nursery!
New boulder coral tree designs use platforms to hold trays of coral. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
CUTTING EDGE TECHNIQUES
We received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation which supports our research and development efforts into pillar coral propagation. Currently, we are working with two well-studied techniques, in-situ and ex-situ fragmentation.
For in-situ fragmentation the corals remain in our open ocean nursery and we use tools like clippers to fragment them. Some of the pillar corals are so large that we are unable to break them into smaller pieces without the assistance of power tools. So we transport them to our lab for ex-situ fragmentation.
Our Science Team fragments pillar coral in-situ. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
We strive to minimize stress during this process and apply techniques used with other species which are known to be effective, including transport in aerated water and minimizing transport time. The larger pillar corals are fragmented using diamond bladed power tools to safely cut though their thick skeletons.
Large pillar corals are fragmented ex-situ using a diamond bladed saw. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Over the next several months we will be monitoring the growth of our new fragments to help determine which pillar coral fragmentation techniques are most effective. We are hopeful this propagation effort will result in successful pillar coral restoration!
A recently fragmented pillar coral has minimal tissue damage after ex-situ fragmentation. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
MONITORING CORALS TO MAXIMIZE REEF HEALTH
Corals face many stressors on the reef; disease, competition, bleaching and predation are just a few. One stressor of great interest to our science team is predation; animals eating corals!
A common predator is the yellow footed snail, Coralliophila abbreviata. This little snail has a BIG appetite. Each snail can eat more than one square centimeter of coral every day! While our divers monitor our restoration sites we also look at every cluster of coral in search of these voracious mollusks.
Divers remove predatory yellow footed snails from corals on the reef. ©Ellen Hudson/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Small patches of exposed coral skeleton is indicative of snail predation. When we find them we are permitted to carefully remove the snail from the coral and collect them in a container. Those samples are later used for research by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Doing this removes this stressor from the coral and allows it to regrow the previously-eaten tissue!
"Talking Science" Editorial Intern
Charis grew up in Michigan where her curiosity for the underwater world started in the local rivers and lakes. She always had a passion for marine biology. While she was in high school, her family unexpectedly had to relocate to coastal Georgia. Moving across the country allowed her to pursue her passion. After learning about the threats and harm humans have caused to coral reefs, she decided she did not want to just study coral reefs, but she wanted to be a part of the solution.
Charis is a recent graduate from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a M.S. in Biotechnology and a concentration in Molecular Biotechnology. She received her B.S. in Biology with a concentration in Coastal Ecology from the College of Coastal Georgia in 2017. She is a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor and has enjoyed working as a dive professional in the British Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys. Charis is excited to intern with CRF™ because she is passionate about educating the public on how to protect our oceans.