"Talking Science" in October 2019 with the Coral Chronicles

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

A NEW GENERATION OF PILLAR CORALS


CRF™ recently received new fragments of pillar corals from Mote Marine Laboratory, bringing our total genotype count up from seven to 20! Pillar corals are among the most threatened species on the Florida Reef tract, and it is likely that many of these genotypes no longer exist in the wild.


A natural pillar coral stand at Conch Reef. Photo credit: Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


In the past five years, wild pillar coral populations have been severely impacted by stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), a fast-moving and deadly disease that affects multiple coral species in the Keys. Pillar corals are especially susceptible to SCTLD, and, unfortunately, the vast majority of pillar coral colonies between the Upper Keys and Key West show signs of active disease.


Pillar coral fragments in the Tavernier Nursery. Photo credit: Nik Varley/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Preserving the genetic diversity of this threatened species is crucial. In a larger partnership which includes Nova Southeastern University, Florida Aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory, Keys Marine Lab, and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, CRF™ is helping to house, monitor, and propagate our share of these threatened fragments in our genetic bank in the Tavernier Nursery. These corals have been harvested from all along the Keys, and create a snapshot of natural pillar coral diversity.


Although we will not be able to outplant these corals in the foreseeable future, our bank will conserve vital genetic information that is being lost in the wild, and will lay the foundation for a new generation of healthy pillar corals.

Each fragment of pillar coral is tagged to monitor their development. Photo credit: Nik Varley/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Each of our pillar corals are individually marked with a genotype and frag number, allowing us to track each coral’s health and development over time. Two of our interns monitor the corals biweekly, and record their growth using digital imaging software. We also treat any active disease with antibiotics, preventing the spread of disease in our nursery. Our hope is that over the course of this monitoring, we will develop new techniques to help our pillar corals thrive, and eventually begin to propagate them at a larger scale.


Freshly fragged pillar coral waiting to grow as large as their neighbors in the back. Photo credit: Nik Varley/Coral Restoration Foundation™


We are encouraged by the success we’ve had with the transfer of the new fragments from Mote. These corals had become accustomed to an aquarium setting, but have adapted well to our in-water nursery and are continuing to grow. This success, and the success of all the pillar corals in our genetic bank, is a huge ray of hope for the species as wild populations continue to decline. Although the situation is dire, we are confident that the combined efforts of scientists, restoration practitioners and the public will ensure that pillar corals live in the Keys for many years to come!


WE MADE IT


As of this week, we have finally finished our one-month monitoring of all corals restored in 2019 and our yearly monitoring from our 2018 outplants under our NOAA grant! Since 2016, we have put thousands of hours into propagating and outplanting these corals, and it’s a thrill to see them all in their new homes on the Florida Reef Tract.


This is the transformation and development of an elkhorn cluster after 18 months of being outplanted. Photo credit: Amelia Moura/Coral Restoration Foundation™


But, we haven’t seen the last of these corals. We’ll survey them one more time at the end of their first year on the reef. After one year in the wild, we hope to see our corals surviving, growing, and eventually fusing into large colonies.


Thriving staghorn after four years of being restored on North Dry Rocks. Photo credit: Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™


Monitoring means data! Surveying the corals is just the beginning; we’ll be spending the next few months analyzing their growth and survivorship, and using this information to fine-tune our restoration practices. We’re looking forward to diving into the datasets. Stay tuned as we share our results!

CRF™ HEADS TO THE ZOO


This month, Amelia Moura, our science program manager, led a talk at Zoo Miami outlining CRF’s™ mission and core programs. The talk, open to Zoo Miami staff and volunteers, provided an overview of our latest restoration strategies as we scale our work to new heights.


Science Program manager, Amelia Moura gives a presentation on our advances in monitoring techniques. Photo credit: Amelia Moura/Coral Restoration Foundation™


At CRF™, we still believe that there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of coral reefs. Our latest advances in restoration make us more confident than ever that we can make a largely positive impact on the Florida Reef Tract. We’re grateful to share this optimism with Zoo Miami’s talented staff and conservation practitioners.

"Talking Science" Editorial Intern

Nik is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied English and environmental science. He grew up in Virginia, and first learned to dive on a family trip to the US Virgin Islands in 2011. During college, he travelled to Bocas Del Toro, Panama to study ocean acidification with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Nik is very happy to be contributing to the Coral Restoration Foundation™’s important work, and hopes to make a positive impact on the Keys’ marine communities both on land and in the water.

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