WILMINGTON – A University of North Carolina at Wilmington laboratory made history this month by spawning in captivity an endangered coral that once thrived in shallow reefs in the Caribbean.
Researchers at the university’s Center for Marine Science are the first to spawn two species of coral, including Orbicella faveolata, also known as mountainous star coral, in a laboratory.
Their success at reproducing the coral stems from a groundbreaking discovery just a few years ago in the United Kingdom, where a then-doctorate student collaborated with Neptune Systems, a company that makes aquarium controller systems, to electronically mimic environmental settings coral rely on in the wild to spawn.
“Ever since then other institutions and other laboratories have been able to do so,” said Nicole Fogarty, the assistant professor who headed the research in the lab referred to as the Spawning and Experimentation of Anthropogenic Stressors, or SEAS facility. “This has just been a big game-changer in trying to spawn corals in technology.”
It also has the potential to help restore coral reefs that are dying off at alarming rates as a result of the changing climate, which is causing ocean warming and ocean acidification, diseases, land-based sources of pollution and habitat degradation.
An emerging illness called stony coral tissue loss disease has been spreading throughout Caribbean coral reefs.
Fogarty left Florida last year when she accepted the job as assistant professor at UNCW’s biology and marine biology department, replacing one of her former professors.
She has been studying coral spawning for nearly 20 years.
Stony coral tissue loss disease is the scariest threat she has seen to coral reefs in the Caribbean, she said.
“It’s devastating the Caribbean,” she said.
There are more than 800 species of coral throughout the world’s oceans. About 60 species of coral are in the Caribbean.
In 2014, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed 20 species of coral as threatened, including five in the Caribbean.
Mountainous star occurs off southern Florida to the Bahamas and may be present in Bermuda. This species of coral has in the last few decades declined rapidly and is found in the Florida Reef Tract, which is the only barrier reef ecosystem in the continental United States.
That tract has lost 90% of its mass in the last 50 years.
Reefs make up 1% of the ocean floor, but are home to 25% of marine life.
Fogarty and her team have been studying how the current threats affect the health of corals from infancy to adulthood.
Successfully spawning endangered corals may help ongoing reef restoration efforts in places like the Caribbean, Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.
“By doing this we can then have corals spawn…
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