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Test Tube Coral Is Now Reproducing In The Wild Of The Caribbean

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WILLEMSTAD – Researchers have for the first time successfully raised laboratory bred colonies of a threatened Caribbean coral species to sexual maturity.

The researchers of SECORE International – a leading conservation organization for the protection and restoration of coral reefs, the University of Amsterdam and the Carmabi Marine Research Station located here, disclosed the findings in the latest issue of the scientific journal Bulletin of Marine Science.

“In 2011, offspring of the critically endangered elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) were reared from gametes collected in the field and were out planted to a reef one year later,” said Valérie Chamberland, coral reef ecologist working for SECORE and Carmabi.

“In four years, these branching corals have grown to a size of a soccer ball and reproduced, simultaneously with their natural population, in September 2015. This event marks the first ever successful rearing of a threatened Caribbean coral species to its reproductive age.”

Due to its large size and branching shape, elkhorn corals created vast forests in shallow reef waters that protect shores from incoming storms and provide a critical habitat for a myriad of other reef organisms, including ecologically and economically important fish species.

An estimated 80 per cent of all Caribbean corals have disappeared over the last four decades and repopulating degraded reefs has since become a management priority throughout the Caribbean region.

The elkhorn coral was one of the species whose decline was so severe that it was one of the first coral species to be listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species act in 2006, and as critically endangered under the IUCN Red List of Threatened species in 2008.

Consequently, measures to aid Caribbean reef recovery often focus on the elkhorn coral given its major decline and its ecological importance.

Since 2010, SECORE, Carmabi, and partners from aquariums around the world started a project aimed at developing techniques to rear larger numbers of elkhorn coral offspring so they could eventually be out planted to degraded reefs throughout the Caribbean.

Elkhorn corals reproduce only once or twice a year, generally a few days after the full moon in August. “We just learned that elkhorn corals can reach sexual maturity in only 4 years. This is exciting news, as we now know that offspring raised in the laboratory and out planted to a reef can contribute to the natural pool of gametes during the annual mass-spawning of elkhorn corals within 4 years”, says Chamberland.

By using a restoration method based on sexual rather than asexual (or clonal) reproduction, the SECORE method also promotes the formation of new genotypes that could potentially cope better with the conditions on modern reefs than their already struggling parents.

These sexually-bred corals therefore not only aid in the recovery of dwindling elkhorn coral populations by increasing the number of colonies, but also by increasing the genetic diversity of this critically endangered species, thus giving evolution the opportunity to play its part.

“We don’t get around to protect coral reefs and to apply additional management tools to reduce overfishing, pollution and other threats to coral reefs”, underlines researcher Dirk Petersen.

“So far, any restoration effort is restricted to small areas and involves costly and labor intensive hands-on work. We now need to take the next step forward to apply our findings on a larger scale in Curaçao and elsewhere in the Caribbean. For that purpose, we started a joint pilot project last August.”

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John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 50 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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