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Florida Aquarium Hopes Research Breakthrough Will Help Save Coral Reefs

Coral resembling a brain sits at the bottom of the ocean.
The Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium
Florida’s Ridge Cactus Corals are colorful and brain-like in appearance, providing habitats for hundreds of marine species. ";

When it comes to finding a proper mate, Florida’s ridged cactus corals have the odds stacked against them. Between rising water temperatures, coastal pollution, and disease they’re practically doomed from the start.

But marine biologists at Tampa’s Florida Aquarium are trying to turn the tides in the coral’s favor by learning how to breed them in captivity.  

The colorful brain-like corals are native to Florida and the Caribbean and provide habitats for hundreds of marine species.

But the outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease in 2014, which causes the organism’s tissue to separate from its skeleton, saw their numbers drop drastically along the Florida Reef Tract.

Since the outbreak of the disease, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been on a mission to rescue endangered corals like the ridged cactus species and bring them on to land to be cared for and studied by public aquariums.

Last August, the Florida Aquarium became the first organization to successfully spawn Atlantic Ocean coral in a laboratory environment. Now the aquarium is the first to witness, and successfully foster, the reproduction of ridged cactus coral.

Keri O’Neil, the project’s lead researcher, is a coral matchmaker. Since April 12, she’s witnessed two of these endangered corals give birth to 350 coral polyps.

“We're like Tinder and the Head Start program - we're the matchmakers and then we're also the nursery that takes care of all the babies,” said O’Neil.

Other species of coral reproduce by releasing hundreds of thousands of eggs into the water column at once. They're then fertilized in the water by a process called "broadcast spawning."

But ridged cactus corals are unique.

enlarged image of ridged cactus coral larvae
Credit The Florida Aquarium
Once fertilized, ridged cactus coral larvae settle on the sea floor and begin to form thousands of polyps that eventually form a new coral colony.

A settled ridged cactus coral larvae next to a ruler - the larvae is half a centimeter
Credit The Florida Aquarium
Florida Aquarium coral researcher Keri O'Neil says that while many people believe corals are rocks, they are actually animals- coral polyps attached to calcium carbonate skeleton they create

These hermaphroditic specimens, known as "brooding corals," release sperm into the water that then travels to its partner and fertilizes the eggs internally. This has become problematic as patches of coral are dying off along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

“Corals can't get up and move around and find their mate, so they're a victim of their own circumstance where they're kind of stuck in the same spot for life,” said O’Neil.

“If the closest other coral of the same species is miles and miles away, then it becomes difficult for those corals to successfully reproduce because the eggs and the sperm can't find each other or they’re not viable by the time they come together.”

But the successful reproduction of the two corals at the Florida Aquarium gives O’Neil hope. Each parent coral can produce thousands of offspring, and dozens of the larvae hatched have already settled and begun forming new corals.

Once big enough, those offspring can be returned to Florida’s reefs.

O’Neil, who first became interested in studying coral after a snorkeling trip in Fort Lauderdale as a child, believes that understanding the ways in which ridged cactus corals reproduce is a key part of saving one of Florida’s most threatened natural resources.

Woman scuba diving while taking notes on clipboard.
Credit The Florida Aquarium / The Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium
Keri O’Neil, lead researcher, is a coral matchmaker. Since April 12, she’s witnessed two of these ridged cactus corals give birth to 350 coral polyps.

“We realize that this is one step in a very tall staircase,” said O’Neil.  “This is just one tool that we can use to make sure that we still have at least the opportunity to restore these reefs by being able to keep these corals healthy, and keeping them reproducing no matter what happens.”

Delaney Brown is a radio news intern for the fall of 2019.
Thomas Iacobucci is the WUSF visual news intern for the fall 2019 semester. He is currently a senior at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is completing his bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Digital Communication.