TAMPA (CBSMiami) — Scientific history is being made at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa as endangered Atlantic pillar coral have spawned for the first time ever, in a lab setting.

The scientific breakthrough occurred this week in a research laboratory at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach as part of Project Coral.  Scientists believe the historic breakthrough could ultimately help save corals in the Florida Reef Tract from extinction.

Project Coral works in partnership with London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens to create coral spawn, or large egg deposits, in a lab.

This conservation effort enables coral sexual reproduction to occur entirely outside of the ocean using innovative technology. This is a world-first coral reef restoration and research advancement in which Atlantic coral, living for several years at the Center as part of a genetic archive, has been reproduced through induced spawning, setting a new stage for saving coral reefs in Florida and the Caribbean.

A close-up of the pillar coral. (Credit: Florida Aquarium)

“When history is made, there is hope, and today’s scientific breakthrough by The Florida Aquarium’s team of coral experts gives us real hope that we can save the Florida Reef Tract from extinction,” said Roger Germann, The Florida Aquarium President and CEO. “And, while many coral experts didn’t believe it could be done, we took that challenge to heart and dedicated our resources and expertise to achieve this monumental outcome. We remain fiercely committed to saving North America’s only barrier reef and will now work even harder to protect and restore our Blue Planet.”

Generating a spawn has never been done for corals native to the Atlantic, so the system was set up to see if it could work. According to Germann, many coral experts even doubted that the aquarium’s efforts would produce successful results.

The team started working on the research in 2014 with the Staghorn coral, but then the focus shifted to pillar coral because of a disease that has been devastating to the Florida Reef Tract. Pillar coral are now classified as almost extinct since the remaining male and female clusters are too far apart to reproduce.

“It’s quite possible that we just had our last wild spawning of pillar coral this year due to the Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease,” the aquarium’s coral expert Keri O’Neill said. “But with the success of this project, as a scientist, I now know that every year for the foreseeable future we can spawn Florida pillar corals in the laboratory and continue our work trying to rebuild the population.

The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, says they’ve made scientific history as a group of coral has successfully reproduced two days in a row for the first time in a lab setting. (Credit: Florida Aquarium)

According to the aquarium, the coral greenhouses use advanced LED technology and computer-control systems to mimic the natural environment of the coral to subtly signal the corals to reproduce. They spent months mimicking the natural environment of corals using advanced technology to reproduce the timing of sunrises, sunsets, moonrises and moonsets to trigger the animals to spawn.

The spawning now shows that genetic diversity and resilience are possible, and it will help keep the ecosystems, as well as Florida’s tourist economy, intact.

This project is a “head start” program for coral. The Aquarium will raise the juvenile corals long enough to give them a better chance of survival than they would have had as larvae in the ocean.

The next steps are to continue the project and build more greenhouses so the aquarium and scientists on the project can work to build a better ecosystem for all wildlife.

This breakthrough is just one of The Florida Aquarium’s coral projects currently underway. Aquarium researchers are working on different approaches to save multiple endangered species of coral that are imperative to the restoration and overall health of the Florida Reef Tract.

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