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"Talking Science" in March 2022 with the Coral Chronicles

Coral Rescue: Collaboration Leads to a Brighter Future for Pillar Corals!

In 2020 the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced $1.2 million in grants to 12 organizations dedicated to improving the health and resilience of coral reefs in the US and Caribbean. We are honored to be one of these recipients! CRF™ is utilizing this grant to support a project to restore coral at four sites in the Florida Keys improving 27.51 acres of reef habitat. It also includes an initiative to raise and propagate pillar coral, a threatened species on the brink of extinction.

A large pillar coral just before it is fragmented ex-situ by our restoration team. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™

CRF™ has cared for pillar corals in our nursery since 2016, and now our science team is developing a safe and replicable method to fragment pillar corals, increasing their population and aiding growth! In January of this year, our resident pillar corals went through a second round of fragmenting, both in-situ and ex-situ.

Pillar corals, also known as Dendrogyra cylindrus, are some of the most threatened coral species in Florida. Known for their columnar shape and charismatic polyps that are exposed at all hours of the day, pillar corals have long played an integral role in the biodiversity of Florida’s Coral Reef.

Unfortunately they have been disappearing at an alarming rate largely due to the introduction of a debilitating disease called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Just as its name suggests, SCTLD attacks the healthy tissue of various species of stony corals and leaves them with nothing but a barren exoskeleton. This disease ravaged populations in Miami starting in 2015 and since then has begun making its way down the coast at an alarming rate. At this time, SCTLD has traveled the length of the Florida Keys and has been observed in areas as far south as the Dry Tortugas.

With this in mind, there has been an active race against time to rescue pillar colonies in the wild before SCTLD can decimate them completely. Coral Rescue, a collaborative effort formed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission between various organizations and institutions including CRF™, was created for this exact reason.Colonies are extracted from their environments and placed in both land-based and water-based nurseries among collaborating organizations to be monitored for overall growth and health.

Currently the only solution to treat SCTLD is the use of an anti-biotic called amoxicillin. When placed along the disease margin, it stops the disease in its tracks. At CRF™, our pillar corals are monitored once a month to catalog their growth and constantly observed for the presence of disease so that our team can intervene and quarantine the corals and treat the disease.

A diver on our Science Team treats pillar corals with amoxicillin to stop the spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Diesease. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

Though there is a grave need, there is little information surrounding best practices for fragmenting pillar corals to expand their populations. CRF™ underwent its first fragmenting attempt in January of 2021 which generated a total of 128 colonies from 24 parent colonies. With this initial event as a model, remaining parent colonies underwent a secondary fragmenting in January 2022, one year later!

CRF™ Science Team fragments pillar corals in-situ and ex-situ. ©Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™

This fragmentation was split up into two days, the first day reserved for in-water fragmenting and the second for land-based fragmenting. Our team was stationed in the sand and, using an assembly line, fragmented the parent colonies using cutters and placed them on trays with specific names based on their corresponding genotype. They were attached to aragonite aquarium plugs using the same two-part marine epoxy that is used to outplant our corals. These new fragments were then measured and placed back on trees to continue growing. Parent colonies that required different tools to be most effectively fragmented were then taken from the nursery to continue the process on land.

While our divers were in the nursery, they were visited by an exciting marine creature– a Goliath Grouper! This large fish was spotted as soon as they got in the water and throughout the entire process of fragmenting, it could be seen swimming in between the trees checking out what the CRF™ team was up to.

A goliath grouper visits our Science Team in our Coral Nursery as they propagate pillar corals. ©Madalen Howard/Coral Restoration Foundation™

Once back at our facilities, fragments were placed in containers overnight with continuous water circulation to make them as comfortable as possible. In the morning, our team got to work on fragmenting these larger colonies using a tile saw. They were then placed on either plugs or cards made of PVC and labeled according to their corresponding genotype. After all of their measurements were recorded, they were submerged back in bins filled with seawater and taken on a short boat ride to be placed back in the nursery. We generated a combined total of 99 new fragments!

Pillar corals are fragmented ex-situ (on land) at our warehouse in January 2022. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™

Processes like this are integral to the long-term restoration plans for ecosystem-level recovery of our coral reefs. Though many species are under threat, if effective methodology can be developed to continue growing their populations, then all hope is not lost. The collaboration exhibited among institutions involved with the Coral Rescue group showcases the importance of collaboration in conservation efforts not only here in the Florida Keys but across the world. When we work together, incredible things happen.

Pillar corals reside in a CRF™ open ocean coral nursery ©Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™

We appreciate the support of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Fund, NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Aramco Americas and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in funding this amazing project.


"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

After spending many summers exploring the coasts of the Virginia Barrier Islands on the Chesapeake Bay and along the rocky beaches of Massachusetts’ South Shore, Kendall developed an immense passion for not only the ocean but marine conservation as a whole. She became SCUBA certified in 2013 while on a marine biology summer program that took her to different islands throughout the Caribbean. It was here that she got her first look at the astounding beauty of coral reefs and fully learned about the harsh human-based actions that have led to their demise.

Kendall graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Geography/Environmental Studies and a minor in Geospatial Information Systems & Technologies in 2019. She has conducted field work in Fiji, Australia, and Curaçao with a variety of marine organisms including sharks, whales, and coral. She is extremely excited to intern with CRF and learn more about the conservation of coral reefs while simultaneously spreading their important message through effective and strategic communication.

ations to come. 

Coral Chronicles Editor

Madalen Howard is CRF's Marketing Associate. 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, and communications.

Madalen spent the last 4 years as a Field Instructor and Social Media Strategist for MarineLab Environmental Education Center. Here she was able to study and teach marine ecology, while snorkeling through mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs every day. While at MarineLab she combined her education and research background, entered the world of communications, and developed MarineLab’s social media department from the ground up.

Throughout her life Madalen has had a skill connecting people with nature. With CRF™, she is excited to bring people into the world of coral restoration, creating inclusive pathways to scientific discovery.

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