CORAL SPAWNING, READY OR NOT!
In late August, as summer came to a close, CRF™ set out to observe the annual staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) coral spawning! Once a year, after the full moon in early August or late July, corals let loose...literally! They sexually reproduce by releasing millions of gametes into the water column.
CRF™ divers gather gametes and witness coral spawning in 2020. ©Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Corals naturally reproduce two ways, sexually and asexually. CRF™ propagates corals asexually by fragmenting large colonies into smaller clones and allowing them to regrow. Spawning is how corals sexually reproduce. Sperm and eggs from genetically different corals combine resulting in a unique coral baby, just like humans!
Most corals, including staghorn and elkhorn, are hermaphroditic, meaning they release both sperm and egg cells, their goal however is for their cells to mix with the cells of a different coral colony. If they are lucky those gametes will bump into one another resulting in fertilization, and eventually a planula larva is born! Millions of planulae free float for days in ocean currents before swimming down to the sea floor and morphing into a polyp (an individual coral that grows into a colony). In the photo below, you can see each ring of tentacles compose one individual polyp on a staghorn coral colony.
A staghorn coral releases gamete bundles into the water. ©Dan Burdeno/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Genetic recombination from sexual reproduction has built diverse gene pools over millions of years. Diverse ecosystems are resilient in the face of multiple threats. Some corals may withstand heat events but suffer at the hands of disease, while others will overcome disease only to be randomly wiped out by a boat running aground on top of them. The more genotypes that exist on the reef the more opportunity there is for coral communities to survive different mortality events. Corals have been resilient for millions of years and that resiliency comes from evolution's ability to naturally select from a diverse gene pool.
Before and after photos of restored elkhorn corals after about 5 years of growth. ©Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Saving coral reefs will take action on multiple levels, and as other organizations work to mitigate human caused climate change and other environmental impacts it is essential that CRF™ works to maintain viable wild coral populations that will have a chance to recover and sustain themselves in the future. Our ultimate goal is for coral colonies we return to the wild to spawn, breeding new wild coral colonies and jumpstarting the reef’s natural recovery process.
Spawning is a massive part of our restoration initiatives. This year we planned to collect data and harvest gametes from corals in our nursery in collaboration with South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC). In 2020 SEZARC collected and cryopreserved (froze) the gametes of 9 different genotypes in our nursery to be used in future genetic recombination. We planned to do the same in 2021. Nature had other ideas in mind.
Our Science Team was able to run out to Carysfort Reef and Tavernier Nursery on Monday and Tuesday night following the August full moon, but large swells prevented boats from going out the rest of the week. Unfortunately, CRF™ did not see spawning this year. Though we were disappointed to miss spawning, dangerous weather is an unavoidable part of field work. And no-spawn data is still important data! It helps the coral restoration community more accurately plan spawning observation timelines.
In early spring CRF™ divers captured gametes from D. labyrinthiformis for the first time in the wild on Florida's Coral Reef! ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
We remain positive because even though CRF™ did not observe it we know the corals did still spawn! Many of our collaborators and fellow coral scientists observed spawning in lab settings or on reefs elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The potential of new wild corals growing and thriving fills our coral scientist hearts to the brim. If you would like to feel a bit of that excitement, check out our article (videos included) from 2020 showing our restored elkhorn and staghorn corals spawning on the reef! https://www.coralrestoration.org/post/talking-science-in-august-2020-with-the-coral-chronicles
Coral spawning is a time of renewal and regeneration. Though our team was disappointed not to capture the event in 2021 we know that working in the field will always throw us curveballs and part of our job is to adapt and pivot when plans don’t fall perfectly into place. Congratulations to all the new coral parents out there, we can’t wait to see where your kids settle down!
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4 Coralpalooza™ patches
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"Talking Science" Editorial Intern
Tom is CRF's Communications Program Intern. Growing up in the arid Coachella Valley, Tom has been passionate about conservation his whole life. Tom didn’t start diving until after he took a conservation biology class and learned about the dismal state of coral reefs worldwide. He switched his major to marine biology and studied algal growth on degraded reefs as part of his marine research quarter in Moorea, French Polynesia. Tom began working for CRF™ back in January 2021 and has spent the past 8 months refining his skills as a coral restoration diver and branding the CRF™ YouTube Channel. He’s stoked to spend his last few months working with the Communications Department and is eager to learn as much as he can about marketing and science communication.
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.