SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - For the first time, massive corals restored to Florida’s Coral Reef are ready to become parents in the wild—a breakthrough in Mote Marine Laboratory’s scientific efforts to restore critically imperiled coral reefs. Earlier this month, Dr. Hanna Koch, Mote Marine Laboratory Coral Reproduction Scientist identified gametes (eggs and sperm) inside colonies of two threatened, yet key, reef-building species that Mote restored to Florida Keys reefs in recent years. The mountainous star coral (O. faveolata) colonies, which Mote out planted in 2015 off of Cook Island near Big Pine Key, and the staghorn coral (A. cervicornis) colonies, out planted in 2016, 2017 and 2018 at Eastern Dry Rocks off of Key West.
Sexual reproduction provides the next generation of genetically diverse coral offspring that can replenish depleted adult populations and disperse to establish new reefs.
“Mote has pioneered this technology called microfragmentation-fusion where we will cut coral into small replicate pieces, grow them out within our land nursery, and and then out plant them on degraded coral skeletons. These corals, these out plants, were only five years old. It really shows that we can produce viable corals of a slow growing massive species within only a handful of years instead of decades,” says Dr. Hannah Koch, Mote Postdoctoral Research Fellow.
In the wild, coral sexual cycles are becoming disrupted and failing altogether in some locations and for some species, which has serious implications for the survival and long-term persistence of natural and restored populations. These restored corals in Florida’s coral reef have endured the global bleaching event of 2015, the environmental stress from the presence of hurricane Irma in 2017, along with the outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease in 2019.
Dr. Koch states, “Sexual maturity and being able to be reproductively capable depends on your size. So, if you’re getting continuously fragmented by hurricanes or destructive forces it’s just delaying the ability to produce that next generation.”
Mote’s science-based coral restoration strategy—combining resilience testing and multiple growth/reproductive interventions—is proving to be highly successful!
Dr. Koch says,“Different genetic varieties that we have and exposing them to different stressors or a combination of stressors. So, that can be temperature stress, different diseases, that could also be ocean acidification conditions and from these experiments we can identify which genetic varieties are resilient or resistant to each individual stressor as well as combinations of stressors.”
Mote scientists will document coral spawning activity over the next few weeks in hopes of continued reproductive success.
“This would just be additional confirmation that they are sexually mature and are spawning. So, producing gametes is the first step, and the next step is to spawn, and then hopefully those gametes will fertilize each other and lead to baby corals,” say’s Dr. Koch.
You can help support the coral restoration efforts by visiting the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and by purchasing a ‘Protect our Reefs’ license plate.