A PERMANENT HOME FOR A GROWING GENE POOL
Recently, the weather in the Keys has been less than ideal and our team has had a hard time getting out onto the water (if only we actually COULD control the weather...). Luckily, our Science Team was able to make some changes to our Tavernier Nursery before all the wind and rain hit!
In early 2019, we received about 1,500 coral recruits from the Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation. (Coral recruits are corals born through sexual reproduction and raised in a lab setting. They have a unique set of genes from two different parents!) These coral recruits originally spawned from parents in our Tavernier Nursery. Most of them were outplanted in late 2019 to Carysfort Reef. Click HERE to read that story.
A staghorn coral recruit after 18 months of growth in our Tavernier Nursery ©Joseph Henry/Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation™
The rest, however, have been living and growing in our Tavernier Nursery! A significant number of these were part of a scientific study led by our collaborator Joe Henry. Joe is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida and has visited the Tavernier Nursery with us several times since early 2019 to closely monitor these recruits. His study aims to understand what happens when scientists raise corals from larvae to adult, and then return them to an ocean nursery environment. Eventually we hope to return our recruits from our nursery to Florida’s Coral Reef where we will continue to monitor them and assess their health. We are particularly interested in comparing their stats to that first group of coral recruits, outplanted in 2019, and currently living on Carysfort Reef!
Left to right: The growth of a staghorn coral recruit over approximately 18 months. As you can see, they started as just 1 or 2 polyps that grow on a tile, and are now ready to be outplanted on the reef! ©Joseph Henry/Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation™
Our Science Team’s most recent project was to move fragments of each coral recruit to a permanent home in our Tavernier Nursery gene bank. This banking system ensures the preservation of each unique genotype for generations of outplanting! To make the move as smooth and organized as possible our team prepared on land for days; printing new genotype tags, building trees, gathering materials and creating spreadsheets to track the placement of each coral. Our Science Team kept high spirits during this prep time. After all, this was the groundwork necessary to preserve the genetic integrity of an endangered species!
THE METHOD TO THE MADNESS
With our sea legs itching to get back on the water, we formulated a plan to permanently house our coral recruits in their new home, the Tavernier Nursery gene bank.
Before moving anything, we labelled everything! We needed to ensure that once the chaos of transport started, we knew which corals were which.
Up until this point, the recruits were labeled with tags given to them by the Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation, the organization that monitored their settlement and initial growth. As two separate organizations, our tagging systems do not match. Using these old tags would be like speaking a totally different language! So, our team went to the nursery and began the vital process of renaming each coral recruit. We have 84 staghorn recruits, 22 elkhorn recruits, and our gene bank can hold up to 6 fragments of each genotype. All together our science team made 636 new ID tags!
A basket of staghorn coral recruit fragments with their new genotype IDs, ready to be hung on the gene bank trees! ©Ellen Hudson/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Now the paperwork was finished it was time to get physical! We called in our powerhouse Restoration Team to build 9 new coral trees, which are serving as our coral recruits' new home in our gene bank.
Three interns (left to right: Vanessa, Ellie, and Lindsey) form an assembly line to efficiently construct Coral Trees™ ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Field science can be chaotic. It involves SCUBA divers managing different materials and communicating mostly through hand motions.. Fortunately, our team of professionals is dedicated to our work to save coral reefs, making it easy to stay focused on the task at hand. After all our preparation, it was time to start moving the corals!
While some of our team installed the 9 new trees, our Science Program Manager, Amelia, and Science Program Intern, Ellen, tagged the coral recruits with their brand-new genotype IDs. After that we hung the corals one by one, until all 84 were secured!
Left: A CRF™ intern, Katie Hall, hangs coral recruits on a tree placed in their new permanent home, our gene bank. Right: CRF™ intern Jeremy Goodsnyder tags each coral recruit with an ID that specifies its unique genetic code. ©Ellen Hudson/Coral Restoration Foundation™
All this work begs the question, if the corals were already in our nursery, why did we need to move them to new trees? It is all part of our best genetic preservation practices which requires properly documenting and preserving corals’ genetic code. This in turn helps to further our restoration success. With sexual coral recruits, we start with just one polyp that eventually grows into a colony. By storing 6 unique fragments of a genotype, we decrease the chances of ever losing that genotype due to mortality or predation of one colony, as there’s 5 others serving as backup.
“It is very exciting to officially complete the integration of new genotypes into our nursery gene bank! These recruits are part of a larger project which began in 2017 to explore not just how to sexually propagate corals, but how to re-introduce them to the reef system. We are happy to report that after 19 months in the Tavernier Nursery, the corals have grown tremendously! This project is just the first of many to help us understand how to expand the efficiency of land-based coral rearing for restoration," said Amelia Moura, CRF Science Program Manager.
Now that we have added these coral recruits into our gene bank, they will be permanent residents of the Tavernier Nursery. As they continue to grow, we will be able to use asexual reproduction, aka fragmentation, to split branches off of these corals and outplant those new corals every year!
"Talking Science" Editorial Team
Ellen graduated with a B.S. in Marine Science and a minor in Environmental Policy, Institutions, and Behavior from Rutgers University in 2017. Growing up in New Jersey, her summers were largely spent boogie-boarding and building sand castles at the Jersey shore. It was her first Discover Scuba in Bermuda at the age of 13, however, that sparked her passion for coral reefs and diving. During her undergrad at Rutgers she took part in a study abroad program in Little Cayman, where she monitored the bleaching severity of corals around the island and had her first coral nursery and outplanting experience. It was here that she learned about Coral Restoration Foundation™, and it quickly became her dream to be a part of the CRF™ team. Recently, she completed her divemaster certification and is absolutely ecstatic about joining the CRF™ team in beautiful Key Largo. She is excited to do her part to restore this amazing ecosystem and hopes to inspire others to protect and conserve it for generations to come.