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Breakthrough at Florida Aquarium could save America’s only barrier reef

Published Apr 22nd, 2020 11:14PM EDT
science news
Image: Norbert Probst/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

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  • Scientists have gotten a special species of coral to reproduce in an aquarium for the first time ever.
  • The coral will eventually be used to restore areas of the barrier reef off the coast of Florida which has been ravaged by disease.
  • Coral reefs around the world are struggling, and scientists are racing against time to rescue them before it’s too late.
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The world’s coral reefs are struggling. Warming ocean waters and pollution have led to mass die-offs of coral in many places around the planet. The only barrier reef in the United States sits off the coast of Florida, and it’s been dealing with its own set of problems, including the spread of coral-killing disease that has devastated portions of the reef.

Now, for the first time ever, a species of coral recovered from the reef has been grown by humans in an aquarium. Ridged cactus coral at the Florida Aquarium reproduced in an artificial setting, offering hope that scientists may be able to rescue areas of the reef that have been hit hard by the disease.

Coral reefs are incredibly vital to the health of Earth’s oceans. They provide the backbone of the ocean ecosystem, serving as sanctuaries for young fish and many other ocean creatures. Barrier reefs like the one off the coast of Florida are important to humans as well, as they provide coastal structure and stability.

If we let the reefs die off, we’re asking for trouble. In fact, recent studies have shown that the cost of letting coral die — thereby inviting increased damage to coastal cities from flooding and tropical storms — will cost us more than taking measures to preserve the reefs and protect them.

Now, scientists at the Florida Aquarium have to play a bit of a waiting game. Knowing that they can get the coral to reproduce in a lab is a huge step, but rebuilding isn’t possible while the disease is still ravaging the reefs. In the meantime, the researchers are learning a great deal of new information about the corals.

“We are losing coral species faster than we can learn about them,” Keri O’Neil, a senior coral scientist with the Florida Aquarium, told CNN. “This breakthrough is just really exciting; we’re still learning basic new things you’d think we’ve known for hundreds of years. It’s just people never worked with this species before and now that we have the opportunity to work with these corals in the lab, we’re going to find out so much more about them.”

It’s still unclear exactly how long the disease outbreak among the coral might last, or at what point it would make sense for scientists to start seeding the reef with new coral. For now, the researchers will continue to monitor the situation and encourage coral reproduction in the lab.

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