Some good news: Florida Aquarium first to reproduce ridged cactus coral in a laboratory

Written by Danielle Moloney

Introduction

Many research labs across the country have shuttered their doors in the last several weeks in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic – but not the Florida Aquarium. In late April, they announced the exciting news that they had successfully reproduced ridged cactus coral (and captured it all on camera!) at their Apollo Beach Laboratory. Their group is the first in the world to accomplish reproduction of this coral type under human care, and the good news has sent shockwaves through the coral reef community. 

Mycetophyllia lamarckiana, the scientific name for ridged cactus coral, is a group of fleshy corals native to the Caribbean and Florida. These corals have distinct circular growth with characteristic ridges. They often look colorful and have a wavy pattern, though there is variety among the different subsets within the group. As a brooding coral, M. lamarckiana reproduces by releasing sperm into the water column, which fertilizes eggs that have remained inside the parent coral, where the fertilized eggs (larvae) begin their development. The parent then releases a fully formed larva that can swim once released. After spending some time floating in the water column, the larvae eventually settle on a substrate and begin to grow. 

Fig 1. Examples of ridged cactus corals. Usually, the ridges of the coral stem from the edges of the sphere but do not touch in the middle – this characteristic is sometimes used to distinguish M. lamarckiana from other corals. Photos courtesy of Nicole Helgason.

This is where the Florida aquarium comes in: their team successfully maintained M. lamarckiana in a lab until it was ready to spawn, at which point, they were able to take many measurements of it’s reproductive period for the first time. Until now, M. lamarckiana larvae have never been measured nor has the larval release time ever been described. Scientists on the project reported that there was initial confusion in the lab before they realized that what they were observing was in fact the release of larvae – the larvae were larger and differently shaped from expected. This isn’t a first for the Florida Aquarium – in August 2019, their scientists were also the first to spawn Atlantic Ocean coral in a laboratory. 

Fig 2 An image of coral spawning in action, courtesy of the Florida Aquarium.

Why is this so important? 

Ridged cactus corals are particularly important in Florida, as they comprise a portion of what is known as the Florida Reef tract. Nicknamed America’s great barrier reef, the Florida Reef tract is an approximately 360 linear mile-long reef that stretches from the southern tip of mainland Florida on the Atlantic ocean side, and curves down along the Florida Keys. 

This diverse ecosystem has been plagued by a mysterious disease called stony coral tissue loss disease. Disease in stony corals often spells trouble for reefs, as they act as the ‘backbone’ of the structure. First described in the area in 2014, stony coral tissue loss causes what you might expect- a disease of the soft tissue that occurs in stony corals which causes white patches and can be spread to other corals. Researchers aren’t fully sure about the intricacies of this disease, but they believe that it is caused by bacteria and spread via direct contact and water circulation. While disease is a somewhat common affliction for reefs, this outbreak on the Florida Reef tract is unique in its spread, duration, mortality rate, and number of species affected. Stony coral tissue loss disease is a battle in itself, but in the Florida reef tract, it is compounded by other threats to reef health. Boat damage, climate change, pollution, and other types of disease also kill corals on this reef each year. 

Implications

Ridged cactus coral is the eighth type of coral affected by stony coral tissue loss disease that the Florida Aquarium has successfully sexually reproduced in a controlled laboratory environment. Keri O’Neil, a senior coral scientist at the Florida Aquarium who had a key role in the reproduction of M. Lamarckiana, says that the prospect of laboratory-controlled coral breeding is exciting for other scientists hoping that this method may be implemented successfully in other coral species. The idea is that coral samples collected from damaged reefs and/or threatened coral species can be brought into labs where they can be bred, and the new offspring coral can then be transplanted back onto the reefs in an effort to strengthen them. The Florida Aquarium collected their ridged coral over a year ago, and will now raise the spawned larvae until it is large enough to be placed back in its natural habitat. This news comes at a time when lots of scientific research has screeched to a halt under COVID-19 restrictions and signifies hope for the future of reef research and restoration. 

Visit the following link to see the amazing footage captured of the ridged cactus coral in action at the Florida Aquarium: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaVBpZfG870

Please contact the author with any questions: dmoloney@fandm.edu

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