Coral conservationists at the Florida Aquarium successfully spawned Atlantic pillar coral for the first time in a lab setting earlier this week, a historic breakthrough that could help save wild species and reefs from extinction.
Sexual reproduction of corals is a notoriously finicky process and can occur both asexually, when new clonal polyps bud off of existing ones, and sexually. Many sexual corals are broadcast spawners, which means that corals produce many male and female gametes to eventually release enormous clouds of sperm and eggs into the water column, according to NOAA. The conditions for such a massive synchronized event have to occur under just the right circumstances, and scientists are still uncertain of all the variables but believe most have to do with temperature, day length, and perhaps even moon cycles – all conditions that have made sexual reproduction in the lab exceedingly difficult.
As part of Project Coral, scientists at the aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach were able to induce spawning in captive corals using innovative technology. Coral experts mimicked the natural environment of corals by manipulating the lighting of their habitat, including reproducing the timing of the rising and setting of the Sun and Moon.
“The massive and fully synchronized spawning at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation, which occurred exactly at the predicted wild spawning time, indicated perfect aquatic conditions for pillar corals in our Project Coral system,” said Senior Coral Scientist Keri O’Neil. “When you have great husbandry, great water quality, and all of the right environmental cues, this is what you can do, you can change the game for coral restoration.”
Coral conservationists say their work will help inform and save corals around the world, including the endangered Florida Reef Tract, a national marine sanctuary located in the Florida Keys. Measuring 2,800 square nautical miles, this diverse area of coral is experiencing a multi-year, disease-related mortality event that has affected as many as 25 coral species, including those listed under the Endangered Species Act, that have shown tissue loss lesions, reports the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
Florida Aquarium says their program will offer a “head start” for corals, allowing staff to raise juveniles long enough in captivity before repopulating them in reef systems that offer a better chance of survival.
“When history is made, there is hope, and today’s scientific breakthrough by The Florida Aquarium’s team of coral experts gives us real hope that we can save the Florida Reef Tract from extinction,” said Roger Germann, Florida Aquarium President and CEO, in a statement. “And, while many coral experts didn’t believe it could be done, we took that challenge to heart and dedicated our resources and expertise to achieve this monumental outcome. We remain fiercely committed to saving North America’s only barrier reef and will now work even harder to protect and restore our Blue Planet.”
The team first managed to artificially induce a spawn in 2013 and have since spawned 18 species of Pacific corals, but spawns for Atlantic were a challenge up until now, said the aquarium in a blog post.