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"Talking Science" in March 2022 with the Coral Chronicles

NEW ADVANCEMENTS IN CRF™ PILLAR CORAL CARE!

In recent years, pillar coral populations within the Florida Keys have dwindled significantly—so much so that we consider them functionally extinct, or unable to sexually reproduce successfully within local reefs. At Coral Restoration Foundation™ are working our hardest to raise and restore pillar corals through a multi-pronged approach!

Pillar corals on Florida's Coral Reef succumb to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. ©Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Our pillar coral conservation venture began with a single goal: to protect pillar corals from certain extinction. In order to do so CRF™ is acting in a number of ways. First we are gene banking pillar corals in our nurseries to conserve their unique genetic material. Second, we are determining best practices for propagation of pillar corals via fragmentation and care of pillar corals in open ocean nurseries. Third, we aim to eventually return pillar corals to Florida's Coral Reef and develop best practices for outplanting!

Under strict management and permitting CRF™ began collecting pillar corals from the wild almost a decade ago. In 2016, CRF™ collected 18 pillar coral colonies from the wild and brought them to our offshore Tavernier coral nursery where they’re still found today. Ten genetically distinct genotypes were represented across these 18 colonies—some of which no longer exist in the wild! Today as a result of this initial collection and some “coral swaps” with collaborating restoration groups and researchers the CRF™ gene bank now holds 13 unique pillar coral genotypes!

Science Program Manager Amelia fills a Coral Tree™ with newly made pillar coral fragments. ©Madalen Howard/Coral Restoration Foundation™

SIDE NOTE: CRF™ recently sent samples of our pillar corals to FWC to support their creation of a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism DNA test! You can read all about that in the December issue of Coral Chronicles linked here: https://www.coralrestoration.org/post/talking-science-in-december-2022-with-the-coral-chronicles

Fragmenting Pillar Corals

Pillar corals grow at a snail’s pace compared to our Acroporids (staghorn and elkhorn corals), just 0.55 mm/year. This fact exemplifies the difficulty of our situation: time is of the essence and our reefs need help now!

To facilitate population growth restoration practitioners like CRF™ take advantage of corals natural ability to asexually reproduce. A fragment of coral, split into two, will regrow into two individual colonies. This process allows us to raise and return corals to the wild in a way that is both scalable and self-sufficient!

In 2021, our science team fragmented 68 pillar corals into 171 total fragments. The results were promising: After one month the fragments saw an overall survivorship of 99% and after one year it was 94%! In 2023 CRF™ fragmented our pillar coral stock again, with the goal of creating redundancies, aka genetic backups, within our gene bank. These results are promising, and each lead us one step closer to our additional goal of returning pillar corals to the reef!

CRF™ team fragments pillar coral in-situ ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™

For each of our pillar coral fragmenting events CRF™ has used 2 methods of propagation (in-situe and ex-situ) to determine best practices. So far there has been no measurable difference between the survivorship of the coral fragments and the method of fragmentation but the data is still in the works! Ex-situ fragmenting happens on dry-land. CRF™ restoration practitioners transport corals from our open ocean nurseries to our land facility. While prepping for fragmentation, corals are stored in large bins containing aerated seawater. Fragmentation is then conducted with a diamond band saw. The process for in-situ fragmenting happens within the field at our open ocean coral nurseries: CRF™ divers segment pillar coral colonies using diagonal cutting pliers or loppers, depending on the size and density of the coral skeleton. Both in-situ and ex-situ fragmented colonies are then adhered to either ceramic coralline coral plugs/disks or PVC cards using a two-part marine epoxy, and then pressed into the coral tray’s lattice mesh. This design gives our corals direct sunlight and enables optimal growth!

CRF™ Science Program Manager swims through the Boulder Coral Trees™ in our Tavernier Nursery. ©Madalen Howard/Coral Restoration Foundation™

Monitoring Pillar Corals

Once the pillar corals are fragmented we continue to care for them and monitor them within our nursery. We rely on qualitative monitoring techniques to check up on them! Recently CRF™ has developed a PVC camera rig that can capture all the data we need from our pillar coral trays in a single snapshot!

CRF™ intern Natalie, uses the camera rig to take photos of pillar corals. These photos are later uploaded to a computer software to be measured! ©Madalen Howard/Coral Restoration Foundation™

CRF™ divers will fix the camera rig on top of a pillar coral tray, mount the camera, and place image rectification cues, including a 90-degree fiberglass rod and a measuring tape. During image processing, these cues will help justify the X, Y, and Z axes, and allow us to take precise measurements using a computer! Prior to this methodology, divers would take several metrics of each pillar colony manually using vernier calipers, but this, in contrast to our new methodology, was far more time-consuming and resulted in more error!

CRF™ intern Natalie, uses the camera rig to take photos of pillar corals. ©Madalen Howard/Coral Restoration Foundation™

What is a city without skyscrapers? Pillar corals, much like tall buildings, offer vertical complexity and a towering beauty, but the unpredictability of tomorrow jeopardizes their presence on the reef. With each day that passes comes a greater need for thoughtful ingenuity and compassion for local reef systems. In order to restore our reefs, we must think carefully about the future, and work together. After all, bringing our reefs back to vitality is a multifrontal battle—one that can be solved using science, restoration, and community powered action. If pillar corals within our nursery continue to show the same promising results, then we can expect to step into our next stage sooner than later: outplanting!

 

"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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