The Florida Aquarium announced a breakthrough that may help save America’s Great Barrier Reef. Scientists at the Tampa-based aquarium have successfully reproduced ridged cactus coral for the first time. A video captures the tiny baby corals looking like undersea fairy lights as they take their first and only swim beyond the reef.

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Since a major disease outbreak attacked Florida’s coral reefs in 2014, scientists from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA Fisheries have rescued corals and moved them into labs. Florida Aquarium scientists are caring for adult coral colonies, coaxing them to breed and reproduce in the hopes of eventually restoring the diseased reefs. In the course of this rescue mission, scientists are discovering new info on coral biology, including the timing of babies and what coral larvae look like.

“This breakthrough is just really exciting; we’re still learning basic new things you’d think we’ve known for hundreds of years,” said senior coral scientist Keri O’Neil. “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.”

Ridged cactus corals are a type of brooding coral. This means they reproduce by releasing sperm into the water. Eggs within the parent coral are fertilized, and larvae develop. When the coral babies are sufficiently formed, the parent corals spit them into the water. The babies swim until they find a good spot on the reef. Then they settle down for life. This video shows the phenomenon.

blue/purple underwater sea anemone

Florida has the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem. Often called “America’s Great Barrier Reef,” it extends from St. Lucie Inlet, north of Miami, to the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys. About two-thirds of the reef tract is within Biscayne National Park and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Reproducing ridged cactus coral is the latest in a series of coral breakthroughs at the Florida Aquarium. Last year scientists at the aquarium had the world’s first success at making a group of coral reproduce two days in a row. The aquarium is partnering with London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens in Project Coral, a program aimed at repopulating the world’s reefs.

“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 populations,” said O’Neil.


Images via Pexels