It’s been called the world’s greatest sex show, but as we all know, romance can be temperamental. You need a full moon, of course. And the ocean temperature (above 26C) needs to be not too hot and not too cold. The tidal flow needs to be not too fast and not too slow. Even then Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is in the mood only once a year. Suddenly, when conditions are perfect, as they are expected to be in the next several weeks, the annual coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef begins. Trillions of eggs and sperm are released to fertilize in the current and eventually form new corals.
Scientists are now intensely studying this phenomenon to uncover ways to replicate spawning and potentially create new, more heat resilient, hybrid coral species. With two recent heat events that devastated vast areas of the Great Barrier Reef and NOAA predicting a 60% chance of a third mass bleaching event this summer, time is of the essence. NOAA’s forecast covers November 2018 thru Feb. 2019 and could result in coal bleaching along the entire 2,300km length of the reef.
There are many innovations in various stages of execution that hold potential for saving the world’s imperiled coral reefs. Here are a few.
Underwater Robots Aid in Coral Matchmaking
A team of Australian marine scientists are looking for answers on the coral reefs that survived the 2016-2017 coral bleaching events. It’s from these more resilient “survivor” reefs that they plan to capture hundreds of millions of coral larvae during the next spawning event.
After growing the fertilized larvae in large floating enclosures, the baby corals will be delivered to damaged areas of the reef via advanced underwater robots. The technology being considered is the RangerBot, an autonomous underwater robot that was developed to combat another reef scourge–the crown of thorns starfish. A new version of the robot called the LarvalBot will play stork when needed to deliver coral babies during the next coral spawning.
It is hoped that this developing technology can be applied globally wherever coral reefs are threatened by coral bleaching.
This all might sound like science fiction but the scientists from Southern Cross University and Queensland University of Technology, say this approach should increase successful coral transplanting 100-times over more manual methods.
Coral Spawning in the Lab
In 2016, Jamie Craggs and his team at Horniman Museum and Gardens, together with partners such as SECORE and S.E.A. Aquarium, induced spawning in their laboratory of several coral specimens simultaneously and cross-fertilized them. Today, the resulting juveniles have already grown into healthy little colonies.
Coral Larvae on Ice
Just within the last several weeks scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have successfully frozen and thawed coral larvae.
This cryopreservation breakthrough holds great potential for preserving threatened coral species in a biobank.
It also enables conservationists to plant larvae at any time, rather than being restricted to the annual spawning period. (photo – mushroom coral, SCBI)
“If we combine biobanking with other conservation efforts to help corals recover from bleaching, we might be able to give them a real fighting chance at survival. And potentially even help them adapt to changing oceans,” said Jonathan Daly, at SCBI and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. “Innovative technology like this is going to be crucial to saving the biodiversity of corals worldwide.”
Does the Great Barrier Reef need a Jolt?
The Reef Ecologic group is conducting a trial to see if they can accelerate coral growth by giving it a jolt of electricity. This idea has been used successfully in other areas but not on the Great Barrier Reef. The technique uses steel frames that conduct low-voltage electric current.
“This electricity interacts with the minerals in the seawater and causes solid limestone to grow on the structure. It draws on the principles of electrolysis, where the electric current causes a chemical reaction to occur which wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Delphine Robbe of Gili Eco Trust. Adding that once the limestone solidifies, “it’s the same thing that makes up [marine] skeletons,” creating a perfect breeding ground for aquatic life.
Robbe claims that using this technology, corals grow 3 to 4 faster than normal and are more likely to survive.
Creating a More Resilient Coral Hybrid
Australian scientists are rushing to create heat tolerant coral hybrids in their laboratory. They may also have discovered a way of growing a more heat tolerant algae that grows on coral and is often the first casualty in coral bleaching.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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Summit: 2015, Citizen Science, Dive Tourism as tools for conservation, The value of coral reefs. Local activism and engagement.
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