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Rough cactus coral offspring brings hope for the future

by Susan and Simon Veness

Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando, Florida has announced its rough cactus coral has produced hundreds of offspring, marking the first time the threatened species has propagated under human care.

florida coral rescue center
Images courtesy of Florida Coral Rescue Center

SeaWorld aquarists are at the head of the project, which is funded by Disney Conservation Fund and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

Over the past several weeks the coral’s larval release has taken place, and the event is part of a large-scale propagation effort whose results will be used to restore Florida’s Coral Reef.

Rough cactus coral embryos fertilize within a parent colony, and are then released as swimming larvae which settle onto hard surfaces, where they attach and grow into corals.

The process normally takes place in the ocean from December-March, but at the Florida Coral Rescue Center (FCRC) they have settled onto small tiles placed in their nursery pools.

florida coral rescue center baby rough cactus coral
Baby rough cactus coral

“These offspring are very important to the future of this threatened species, and to the health of our oceans,” said Jim Kinsler, facility manager of the Florida Coral Rescue Center and curator of aquariums and Wild Arctic at SeaWorld. “Our team of experts understand that the work we are doing is critical to protecting an entire ecosystem, and by ensuring these corals survive and grow to become a part of a healthy and abundant population, future generations of ocean enthusiasts will be able to enjoy them when visiting Florida’s Coral Reef.”

In total, 18 species affected by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) in the wild and more than 700 corals are gene banked at the FCRC, with their 2019-2020 collection having taken place ahead of the SCTLD boundary, which has caused up to 100 percent mortality in susceptible corals.

 SCTLD wiped out entire sections of reefs since it first appeared off the coast of Florida in 2014, and has spread into the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Mexico, St. Maarten, the Dominican Republic, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rising ocean temperatures, exposure to pollution, and physical damage appear to have caused certain coral species to be more susceptible to the disease.

larval collector
Larval collector

“While work continues to better understand and control this disease, we have made the difficult decision to remove healthy coral from ahead of the disease boundary and place them in land-based facilities like FCRC to prevent them from becoming infected, to preserve genetic diversity, and to propagate them for restoration,” Gil McRae, director of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said. “Large numbers of offspring produced by rescued corals will be essential for restoration of Florida’s Coral Reef. These vulnerable rescued corals are thriving under the expert care of the FCRC team, and offspring produced by these corals will contribute substantially to restoration efforts.”

Globally, coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, while also buffering shorelines against 97 percent of the energy from waves, storms, and floods, thus protecting against property damage, erosion, and loss of life.

To learn more about this project, visit AZA.org/coral-reef-rescue.


Disney Helps Save Florida's Coral Reefs

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