Planting diverse corals under the sea could help save threatened coral reef ecosystems, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances on October 13. The study, conducted by Cody Clements and Mark Hay of the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that increasing coral reefs’ richness by ‘outplanting’ diverse species of corals could improve coral reef growth and survival.
The findings come at a time when coral reefs are facing serious threats globally. According to the EPA, the Caribbean has already lost about 80-90% of its coral cover. The Indo-Pacific region has lost more than half of its corals. The trend is replicated across the world. Coral reefs are faced with a myriad of threats including human activity, global warming and overfishing, among others.
According to the researchers, their discovery could help save coral reefs from complete depletion if adopted. Planting would help retain coral reefs that are under threat and even help them grow wider. However, the researchers are still calling for additional research to better understand how the mechanism could be harnessed.
“Yes, corals are the foundation species of these ecosystems — providing habitat and food for numerous other reef species,” said Clements, a Teasley Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. “Negative effects on corals often have cascading impacts on other species that call coral reefs home. If biodiversity is important for coral performance and resilience, then a ‘biodiversity meltdown’ could exacerbate the decline of reef ecosystems that we’re observing worldwide.”
In their experiment, the scientists planted different species of corals in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. The corals grew and spread well despite growing in mixed species. According to the researchers, the aim was to determine whether the corals were mutual or competitive.
“We’ve done the manipulations, and the corals should be competing with each other, but in fact they do better together than they do on their own,” said Hay, Teasley Chair in the School of Biological Sciences. “We are still investigating the mechanisms causing this surprising result, but our experiments consistently demonstrate that the positive interactions are overwhelming negative interactions in the reef settings where we conduct these experiments. That means when you take species out of the system, you’re taking out some of those positive interactions, and if you take out critical ones, it may make a big difference.”
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