Thursday night, The Florida Aquarium (FLAQ) and its team of partners had a moment of celebration and then sprang into action. Staghorn coral spawning (when corals release eggs and sperm in the water at the same time to reproduce) only happens once a year and is an event that is increasingly more uncertain given our changing climate. Fortunately, it occurred this year right on schedule, allowing The Florida Aquarium’s coral conservation team to continue its coral spawn research for the eighth year. The research strives to help save staghorn coral and ultimately the Florida Reef Tract.
The Florida Aquarium-led team included scientists from the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (granters of the permits to collect coral spawn), Georgia Aquarium, Columbus Zoo, SeaWorld, Akron Zoo and Nova Southeastern University.
They dove 30 feet below the ocean’s surface in Tavernier Key, expertly collected the spawn from CRF’s coral nursery, and delivered it to teams aboard research boats. Those teams immediately began the fertilization process using the bundles of eggs and sperm (gametes) and rushed them to on-shore labs to maximize the development of embryos and ultimately free-swimming larvae.
Some of the larvae are being released to the wild, while others will soon be brought back to grow at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, Florida and at other partner institutions. At these institutions, experts will continue their experiments to crack the code on staghorn coral settlement and growth. FLAQ knows it can be done because it has the first and longest-living staghorn colony, now over three years old. Replicating and ramping up this process is critical for the restoration and recovery of this species in the wild.
Cryopreservation of sperm also was conducted by the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC), which provides year-round samples for research, as well as a genetic bank for future protection of the species.
“Our goal is to improve resiliency of staghorn coral by assisting the sexual reproduction of this species. It no longer occurs naturally, so we are helping it along. Together with our partners, we will determine the primary conditions needed for staghorn coral to settle and grow into adults so that we can restore them back to wild reefs, which will increase the genetic diversity of corals and their ability to survive changing conditions. We are giving these corals their best chance to survive and flourish,” asserted Florida Aquarium Senior Vice President of Conservation, Science and Research Margo McKnight.
Coral spawning is one of nature’s most fascinating events and is vital for scientists to witness for coral research and conservation. Often called ‘rainforests of the sea’ because of the abundance and diversity of sea life found there, coral reefs cover only two percent of our blue planet but sustain more than 25 percent of all marine life.
The annual coral spawn gives corals their only chance to sexually reproduce and build future coral reefs, which has become more challenging due to pollution, increasing water temperatures, natural disasters, and a variety of other human-made complications. These factors have depleted many coral reefs, creating huge gaps of ocean between coral colonies.
With this ever-increasing distance between colonies, the chance of coral reproduction is significantly reduced because reproductive cells from one coral reef must come in contact with another reef before they can become fertilized and produce a new coral colony. Staghorn coral, in particular, is a critical reef building species in Florida and has been the most difficult to sexually reproduce.
Some scientists believe staghorn coral can no longer successfully sexually reproduce in the wild at all with these environmental challenges emerging. Thus, scientific groups like the one currently being led by The Florida Aquarium in the Florida Keys are performing research to produce genetically diverse corals on land, which can ultimately be used for coral reef restoration.
“Corals are in great peril, and it is up to us to help them survive and thrive,” said Roger Germann, Florida Aquarium’s President and CEO. “I am very proud of our team and the work we are doing to help save corals, which are vital to the marine environment, economy and tourism. The collaboration among our partners is heartening and critical. We need everyone — from scientists and divers, to members of our community and ocean lovers— to do as much as they possible can to restore them before it’s too late.”
What triggers the event remains unclear, though scientific observations indicate a strong connection between the coral spawn and seasonal lunar cycles, as well as multiple environmental cues such as water temperature and tidal cycles.
While the staghorn coral spawn is nearing its end, the research resulting from this week is just beginning. Project participants are returning to their respective institutions throughout the United States and around the world to play their role in staghorn coral conservation.
“In addition to returning hundreds of thousands of larvae back into the ocean, we, along with our partners, will be working together closely in the coming weeks and months to learn more about settlement and growth of the larvae we’ll be bringing back to our institutions,” said Scott Graves, Director of The Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation.