Breaking coral apart to save it with Mote Marine Laboratory
June 22nd, 2019
Nested amongst the mangroves on the lush island of Summerland Key sits one of the foremost marine science labs in the country. The Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration works to understand coral reef dynamics in the face of ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures. This week, the OceanX team got to shake their sea legs and hop off Alucia to visit the Center which operates under the larger Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
The building is imposing to look at—a wall of concrete with very narrow windows. We soon learned that the facility was reconstructed in 2017 to be hurricane-proof to up to Category 5. Although, in its current state it’s far from the way the last owners of this space left it—originally, it was a lab used for monkey research. The monkeys, which were kept on an island about 20 minutes offshore, started to harmfully eat away at the mangroves on the island. After that project was shut down, Mote took over the space and restored the decimated mangrove ecosystem by creatively placing young trees into kiddie pool-sized tanks with flowing redirected canal water. They could not have known how this foreshadowed what was to become their famed coral restoration project.
This building was recently rebuilt to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and can be prepared in less than 48 hours.
Microfragmented coral growing on their ceramic plates.
A preserved coral skeleton.
Microfragmenting is a new technique to grow corals in a lab setting, 40 times faster than it would in the wild. It was discovered when scientist Dr. David Vaughan accidentally broke a piece of coral and discovered that, like our skin, when coral is broken, it will try to repair itself—rapidly. Scientists from Mote collect microscopic coral eggs during spawning events (which only occur during August, under full moon conditions, after midnight). Back at the lab, these eggs will turn into larvae and sprout to polyps that grow on concrete mounds placed in tanks supplied with seawater, eventually to be cut into pieces. The microfragmented coral reaches sexual maturity in only three years compared to 25-50 years naturally.
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Once these cut corals reach the size of a pepperoni slice, our guide explained that they will be transplanted onto dying corals of their species in the reefs surrounding the lab. Many of them have been deliberately exposed—in a massive, specially built set up at Mote—to highly acid and warmer sea water, to weed out the hardiest in anticipation of end-of-century ocean conditions.The coral must be populated by fragments of the same family or they will attack each other and the mission will be unsuccessful. The goal is to monitor the new corals so that they fuse together and reach dinner-plate size (roughly sexual maturity) and ensures independent survival without the lab.
In the wild, only one in a million eggs will ever make it, but this process has shown a 95 percent survivorship rate amongst transplanted microfragments.
On the day we visited, the Lab was bustling with summer interns. This entire operation is very labor intensive, with hundreds of corals that require regular scrubbing of algae with a toothbrush, and the creation of hundreds of ceramic plugs for the corals to plant on, all by hand.
Recently, several scientists from Mote joined us on Alucia as we undertook an end-to-end survey of the Florida Reef tract. While scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were looking at microbiomes and bacteria, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography were looking at creating maps of the reef, the Mote crew were focused on the stony coral tissue loss disease that is devastating the waters of their home state. With their outplanting program, research, and knowledge of the reef, this institution will surely be at the forefront of saving “the crown jewel of the American tropics.”
|CURRENT LOCATION:||Summerland Key, Florida, USA|
|MILES TRAVELED:||500 nm|