It's rare to see any positive news about the Great Barrier Reef nowadays but an incredible new development is bringing some much-needed hope to this beautiful yet troubled ecosystem.
For the first time, Australian scientists have successfully transplanted “baby corals” from the Great Barrier Reef into another area of the reef, showing a novel new way to accelerate regrowth of coral reefs faced with bleaching.
The pilot study by Southern Cross University in Australia took place during the mass coral spawning of November 2016 near the coast of Heron Island. Researchers collected bucket-loads of coral eggs and sperm and nurtured them into a million coral larvae. They then “planted” the larvae onto reef patches in underwater mesh tents. Eight months later, the juvenile corals were healthy and growing.
“This is the first project of its kind on the Great Barrier Reef to successfully reestablish a population of juvenile corals from larvae settling directly on the reef,” Southern Cross University’s Professor Peter Harrison, lead researcher on the project, said in a statement.
“The success of this new research not only applies to the Great Barrier Reef but has potential global significance – it shows we can start to restore and repair damaged coral populations where the natural supply of coral larvae has been compromised.”
Corals are actually colonies of marine invertebrates, made up of thousands upon thousands of identical individual polyps. Although protected by hard carbonate exoskeletons, corals are fragile ecosystems.
A major concern facing the world’s reefs is a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. Corals get their stunning coloring from the microalgae that live symbiotically with them. If subjected to rising sea temperature, pollution, or changes in pH, the photosynthetic algae abandon the coral's tissues, leaving them without the nutrients they need to live and draining them of color. In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef underwent a mass bleaching event, leaving over 50 percent of the reef dead and up to 93 percent bleached.
This breakthrough could help corals fight back. On the back of its preliminary success, the Australian government is now investing more money into further research.
“In recent years, the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef have undoubtedly accelerated, as we saw with back-to-back years of coral bleaching,” added Dr David Wachenfeld, chief scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
“Innovative science like larval reseeding is one piece in the puzzle of protecting the Reef into the future… The success of these first trials is encouraging – the next challenge is to build this into broader scale technology that is going to make a difference to the Reef as a whole.”