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SCIENTISTS RETURN FROM A MISSION TO SAVE CORAL REEFS IN THE FLORIDA KEYS

 

Tampa, Fl. August 9, 2018- A team of Florida Aquarium scientists and divers just returned after spending 15 days in the Florida Keys for a coral spawn. The team collected 150,000 coral gametes (coral eggs and sperm) during the coral spawn that only happens once a year after a full moon. The team fertilized the eggs and then released thousands back into the wild. The remaining fertilized eggs, or embryos, are being distributed to The Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation, Georgia Aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, and Nova Southeastern University to continue research and to grow the coral for a future release.

This comes at a critical time since Florida is in the middle of the largest coral disease outbreak ever recorded, which is rapidly killing 20 different species of coral in the Florida Keys. The staghorn coral species, the primary species that was collected during the coral spawn, is not at immediate threat from the disease. However, it is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Scientists are trying to figure out what's causing the outbreak and how to stop it. The outbreak makes the work on reproducing corals even more important because it’s necessary to raise their offspring.

“This work is more critical than ever due to the current disease outbreak in the Florida Keys,” said Keri O’Neil, Coral Nursery Manager for The Florida Aquarium. “These laboratory fertilization techniques can be used to save many coral species in the future.”

O’Neil believes practicing the techniques could restock Florida's damaged reefs with the corals raised in the laboratory at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach. The lab already houses corals collected from last year’s spawn that will be celebrating their one year birthday and will be released back into the ocean later this year.

The gametes were collected from the Coral Restoration Foundation Coral Nursery, with the work conducted by permit from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The team worked with several partners including the Keys Marine Laboratory, Coral Restoration Foundation, Nova Southeastern University, University of Florida, South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC), Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Sea World, Georgia Aquarium, and Horniman Museum and Gardens.

“I think it’s a really good example of the strengths in partnerships that The Florida Aquarium has formed to help save coral reefs,” said O’Neil.


***B-Roll of the Coral Spawn from Underwater Photographers:

https://flaquarium-my.sharepoint.com/:f:/g/personal/bgallaher_flaquarium_onmicrosoft_com/EjCeZEfHr2NKrqvMRoevnOMBzQyg3L6RwScBRUygAmnhqw?e=322E9t


More on The Florida Aquarium:

  • Voted a Top 3 Aquarium in North America by the readers of USA Today (May 2018)
  • Earned Trip Advisor Hall of Fame Rating (2018)
  • Earned a 4-Star rating from Charity Navigator (2018)


Additional information on Coral:

  • Corals are not plants, they're actually animals.
  • Called “the rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs only take up about 2% of the ocean floor, but host about 25% of all ocean species.
  • Coral reefs grow very slowly, at an average rate of just two centimeters per year.
  • Each individual coral is known as a polyp.
  • The annual synchronized spawning of corals is a spectacular event.
  • This mass reproduction only happens once a year.
  • It involves colonies and species of coral polyps simultaneously releasing tiny egg and sperm bundles into the water.

 

Top: Rachel Serafin, The Florida Aquarium coral biologist, presents the Aquarium's coral reproduction success at the World Aquaculture Society Conference. Left: Staghorn coral from the August 2017 spawning. Right: Elkhorn coral from the August 2017 spawning. Credit all: The Florida Aquarium.
 
Rachel Serafin, a coral biologist at The Florida Aquarium, was a featured speaker at the World Aquaculture Society Conference held in Las Vegas from Feb. 19-22, 2018. The World Aquaculture Society is an organization recognized for its professional credibility in aquaculture science, technology and education.
 
Serafin spoke about The Florida Aquarium’s unprecedented success in coral reproduction. This year has been the Aquarium’s most successful year to date in coral reproduction. The Aquarium currently has 120 coral juveniles that have survived and flourished from last August’s spawning event (when corals release eggs and sperm in the water at the same time to reproduce).
 
“Speaking at this conference, on a global stage, is a necessary step forward for coral restoration. Corals are not your typical cute, cuddly animal. They are often forgotten, but they are vital to the health of our oceans. Speaking at such a prestigious conference allows us to bring attention to this critical issue before it is too late and all our reefs are beyond repair,” said Serafin.
 
Corals are the building blocks of marine habitats and oxygen-giving marine organisms, and though they cover only about one percent of the ocean floor, they have a huge effect on the health of the rest of the ocean and the planet. That is why The Florida Aquarium is working hard to protect and restore our oceans and raise awareness about the many threats coral reefs face today, such as increasing water temperature, pollution and overfishing.
 
“Aquaculture is the rearing of aquatic animals such red drum or snook, and coral is no different,” said Serafin. “While some rear fish to replenish wild populations, we rear corals to help replenish those wild populations that are in dire need of our help.”
 
There are different types of coral aquaculture practices that The Florida Aquarium uses to aid in coral restoration, but genetic creation through sexual reproduction was the focus of Serafin’s presentation.
 
The Florida Aquarium is a leading partner during the annual staghorn coral spawn in the Florida Keys. The annual coral spawn gives corals their only chance to sexually reproduce on their own and build future coral reefs, and this process is vital for scientists to witness for coral research and conservation.
 
Every year, The Florida Aquarium and other partners dive 30 feet below the ocean’s surface in Tavernier Key, expertly collecting the spawn from the Coral Restoration Foundation’s coral nursery, and deliver them to teams aboard research boats. Those teams immediately begin the fertilization process using the bundles of eggs and sperm (gametes) and rush them to on-shore labs to maximize the development of embryos and ultimately free-swimming larvae. Some of the larvae were released to the wild, while others were brought back to grow at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, FL and at other partner institutions.
 
“This year compared to previous years, we have seen an incredible increase in our success rates. We now have 120 coral juveniles in our land-based coral nursery, and they are all doing spectacularly,” said Serafin. “Our goal with these juveniles is to create genetic diversity among Florida coral reefs and their ability to survive changing conditions. We are giving these corals their best chance to survive and flourish.”

 

A couple of long-disused buildings in the Florida Keys that once sheltered servicemen from missile launches have been sheltering something else – pythons. 

Four large crawlers – one, a female, was nearly 16 feet long – turned up within the last month at an old missile base at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) reported. 

Scientists think the snakes migrated from the Everglades, a fertile breeding ground for the unwanted predators. Now, officials say, the snakes may be poised to head south, where several Keys species are defenseless against the large, invasive reptiles. 

Compounding their concerns: Officials this past summer also discovered some hatchling pythons near Key Largo – a strong indication that the snakes have found a welcome habitat and are multiplying. 

The latest unwanted snakes turned up in a couple of old bunkers where the U.S. military once had a Nike Hercules missile firing range. The site, closed 30 years ago, is now part of the 6,500-acre Crocodile Lake refuge. Searchers using trackers and specially trained dogs sniffed out the snakes, said Jeremy Dixon, who manages Crocodile Lake. 

“Snakes like deep, dark places,” he said. 

They also like black rats, which likely attracted them to the site, Dixon said. The area also is home to hundreds of feral cats, another potential food source. 

The easy availability of food, said Dixon, means the pythons could thrive on the Keys just as easily as they have multiplied in the Everglades. For more than two decades, an array of big snakes have spread and bred in the Everglades. Their presence has had a devastating effect on native birds, deer and other species in the park. Some snakes have even managed to devour alligators. 

The Florida Wildlife Fish and Wildlife Commission is working with the University of Florida to detect and remove the snakes in the Keys. They are partnering with the Irulas, members of a tribal community from India that’s renowned for its ability to catch snakes.  Learn more about those programs

If you need to report a python, dial the Exotic Species Reporting Hotline: 888-Ive-Got1 (888-483-4681).

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