"Talking Science" in May 2020 with the Coral Chronicles


FRAGGIN' & STAGGIN': A SECONDARY CUTTING METHOD


Not to brag, but here at CRF™ we've pretty much mastered the art of growing coral on the Coral Tree™. They go from finger sized fragments to basketball sized behemoths in our offshore nurseries in a span of about 9-12 months. We cut those large, healthy corals from our nursery and outplant them onto the reef, sticking them onto their forever home where our team will monitor them for up to one year through our monitoring surveys and photomosaics. We have been doing this for several years now, and have many colonies that have are thriving and continuing to grow.


Now what if, hear us out, there was a way we could skip the nursery step? What if we could cut healthy fragments, not from the corals in the nursery, but from corals that we have already outplanted? Yes, it’s a bold notion: cutting from healthy outplants in the wild. It will put stress on them. What if they are harmed? What if they get sick, diseased, or bleached? Well, that's what's so great about science. We can find answers to these questions!


An Acropora cervicornis branch after being cut. © Andrew Ibarra/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Two of our current summer 2020 lead interns, Andrew Ibarra and Maddy Montgomery, took this idea on as their intern projects during the spring semester. They were tasked early on with identifying a set of underwater protocols and methods to keep track of the data for this unique project. Dubbing it “Secondary Cuttings: A Viable Restoration Method for Acropora cervicornis?”. Andrew and Maddy faced several setbacks in the form of cancelled dives due to inclement weather. But the sun smiled and shined bright for them on March 11, 2020. They targeted 15 genetically distinct and healthy clusters of 1+ year-old Acropora cervicornis colonies on Pickles Reef, and cut 3 branches, approximately 10-15 cm in length, off of each.


They then outplanted those 45 total cuts on a nearby ledge (shoutout to Restoration Program Coordinator Dan Burdeno and interns Jim Brittsan and Lauren Zitzman for their help on this day!). Upon the successful secondary cutting of these corals, the team had to monitor the health of the donor colonies to see if they could withstand this type of stress, which were scheduled to be done in two week intervals. Alas, the universe had other plans for them and the project. The next week, CRF™ decided that it was in the best interest of the organization to suspend volunteer and intern diving operations indefinitely due to the spread of COVID-19.


Maddy cutting branches off of a preciously outplanted colony (left), and Andrew attaching tags to coral in order to keep track of which colonies and branches were targeted for the project (right). © Andrew Ibarra (left), Maddy Montgomery (right)/Coral Restoration Foundation™


“I was extremely bummed out about it. We had put so much effort into getting to this point and were really excited to see how the donor colonies would react. When we heard this news, I really thought that the project wouldn't happen because of the circumstances," said Andrew Ibarra.

Although they were unable to obtain multiple sets of data points, a knight in shining armor appeared before them in the form of CRF™ restoration staff! Despite having an increased workload with no interns or volunteers diving, the restoration staff at CRF™ offered to go out and monitor the donor colonies for Andrew and Maddy!


What they found was nothing but good news as all 45 of the donor fragment points had healed and started new growth at the cut sites! 13 of the 15 donor colonies were evaluated as being in excellent condition, with the remaining two seeing signs of Rapid Tissue Loss Disease (RTL). It is important to note that RTL was also found in surrounding colonies that were not part of this project, so it is highly unlikely that the act of secondary cutting did not bring about RTL in these two colonies.


One branch immediately after being cut (left) and the same branch seven weeks later (right). © Andrew Ibarra (left), Dan Burdeno (right)/Coral Restoration Foundation™


“Despite everything going on, we were so thankful that Dan and the rest of the restoration team were able to collect data on our corals,” said Maddy. “After comparing Dan’s photos on their collection day to the photos that Andrew and I took immediately after fragmenting, we were excited to see how well the donor colonies recovered after fragmenting.”

So, what do these promising results mean for reef restoration and CRF™? Well, it means that “secondary cutting” might be a viable restoration method for Acropora cervicornis. We now have a small sampling and an answer to one piece of the puzzle. Some questions that would be interesting to tackle in the future using what we now know are:

  • Does this promote faster growth rates?

  • Could this lead to increased area of reef restored when coupled with current CRF™ outplanting methods?

  • Would this recovery rate hold if secondary cuttings are made when water temperatures are warmer?

  • How will the secondary outplants perform in the wild?

Nonetheless, we’re excited to see what Andrew and Maddy come up with this summer!


SUCCESS OF CORALS ON DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE REEF


A large part of our mission is to design our groundbreaking coral nursery, outplanting, and monitoring programs using the latest and best scientific guidance from both internal findings and external resources.


Using genotypes from the CRF™ Tavernier Nursery, Kathyrn Lohr, Science and Heritage Coordinator at NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, conducted a study to investigate disturbance effects and phenotypic plasticity, or, the ability for one genotype to express more than one phenotype among outplanted corals at patch and fore reef sites.


Overview from Journal for Nature Conservation.


Published in April 2020, this study uses 6 distinct genotypes from our nursery, outplanted on two different types of reef: fore reefs and patch reefs. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma made landfall with the Florida Keys during the study timeline. The team took this opportunity to observe not only the differences in outplanting growth and survival by genotype and reef site, but put all of these results in the context of a category 4 hurricane.


Despite the lack of multiple pre-hurricane survey points, Lohr et al. did find survival was higher at more protected, inshore patch reef sites and that one genotype exhibited phenotypic plasticity, when considering growth rate. They suggest that these differences may be due to decreased structural complexity on fore reefs, which would produce compounding mortality effects for corals when forces of nature like hurricanes pass through.


However, they noted that these findings indicate that a variety of traits need to be examined and considered when striving for a “resilient” staghorn genotype, especially when taking into account the fact that oftentimes, genotypes perform differently on the reef than they do in a nursery setting.


Lohr et al. specifically call for restoration that goes beyond the traditional and commonly used Acroporids, staghorn and elkhorn. Her team argue that restoration is not one-dimensional and in order to give outplanted a corals a fighting chance, they need to be outplanted in an environment that will support them.


Restoring a healthy reef ecosystem includes outplanting other species of stony corals, which CRF™ is already ramping up, as well as restoring other critical species such as the herbivorous sea urchin. These goals are very similar to those stated in the recently launched Mission: Iconic Reefs plan.


Studies like these are critical pieces of information that can be used by restoration groups like CRF™ to continually refine and improve day-to-day practices. It was a pleasure to collaborate with Kathryn and our team is thankful for all her hard work! We are excited to share these results with our community. You can read this publication here.


FLAQ BABIES: THEY GROW UP SO FAST


Nearly two years ago, on a quiet and warm summer night, something spectacular and magical happened. Not only did the staghorn corals in our nursery spawn, but CRF™ also collaborated on a special project with the Florida Aquarium.


The Florida Aquarium collected sperm and eggs from a CRF™ nursery and cultivated them into little baby corals. These corals were raised into healthy colonies and outplanted in November 2019. This is a particularly special project because gametes from 15 parent colonies were collected and genetically distinct embryos were formed. This is so distinct in fact, that these are brand new genotypes never before seen in our nursery or in the wild!


Each coral carries the potential for new knowledge and resilience. These are very unique outplants because they are on aquarium tiles and are much smaller than our traditional outplant size, so we had to figure out a way to outplant them effectively.


They were outplanted on Carysfort Reef, one of our key demonstration sites, using two different methods. One method used was CRF's traditional 2-part marine epoxy strategy where the team stuck them directly onto the reef. The other used a novel method where they were attached to and raised on bamboo sticks in order to keep predators like fireworms and predatory snails away, as well as competitors like algae. In the six months since these unique individuals were outplanted, CRF™ has been routinely checking on their survival, health, and growth.

One month-old monitoring photos November 2019 vs. December 2019. © Coral Restoration Foundation™


After one month, the outplanted corals were not looking well. It appears as though some fish were attracted to these new outplants and preyed on them, sometimes leaving only a small piece of skeleton remaining on the tile. However, even with this high level of predation, very few of the corals were completely dead.

We were all sad to see our little prodigy corals in this state, but fast forward four months and we started to see a grand recovery! Since our last visit, they have started to heal and regrow healthy tissue with no difference in recovery across both the bamboo structures or the corals attached directly to the reef substrate.



One and five month monitoring photos. © Coral Restoration Foundation™


We are extremely excited that this first attempt at planting 15-month-old coral recruits was so successful, and we look forward to similar projects in the future. We also can’t wait to see how these babies are doing later on in the year once they’re ready for their one year checkup!

"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

Andrew was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida and spent many hours in the Atlantic Ocean swimming

and snorkeling as a child. He graduated from Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and minors in biology and mathematics. In school, he researched marine gastropods and conducted sea turtle tagging

surveys. After graduating, Andrew wanted to dive

(no pun intended) into the world of marine conservation and do something to make a tangible difference for the ocean. After completing 50 dives

in the Upper Keys and witnessing ghastly coral graveyards, struggling ecosystems, and degraded portions of the Florida Barrier Reef, Andrew was inspired to apply to CRF™ to actively help restore our beloved marine ecosystem. He is super excited to join the CRF™ family and learn a variety of skills both above and below the surface. In his spare time, Andrew loves playing any and all sports and watching Marvel movies on repeat.

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