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It's A Baby! (Or At Least A Million) As FL Aquarium Announces First Atlantic Coral Spawning

Scientists at the Florida Aquarium on Wednesday announced they have for the first time induced Atlantic coral to spawn in a laboratory. This gives hope for the beleaguered Florida reef.
The state's coral reefs are beset by diseases like bleaching and ocean acidification. So coral - like many species across the planet - aren't able to evolve fast enough.

Scientist Keri O'Neil said every single one of the offspring they've sired now has slightly different genetics than their parents.

"So if you produce a thousand individuals, there may be a handful in there that are now expressing the genes that are resistant to bleaching, or resistant to disease," she said.

Laboratory spawning has been done with Pacific coral, and O'Neil says their effort will give added genetic diversity to reefs in Florida and the Caribbean.

What O'Neil has done for the past couple of years - in association with the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London - is try to get coral to create little baby coral.

It might not be as easy as it sounds. After all, coral spawns only once a year.

And just how do you get coral in the mood?

They played a little Barry White. They also had mood lighting, which mimics the Florida sunset by getting redder and dimmer later in the day. And a lighted ping pong ball above the tanks was a stand-in for the full moon.

And for the pillar coral that spawned for the first time Saturday night, this is good news for a species beset by Stony Coral Tissue Loss disease.

"For some of the disease-affected species, we never even had the offspring or even propagated corals to work with," she said. "This disease affects 22 different species and many of them have never been propagated in Florida, so this is really a first step."

And the success rate astounded even O'Neil.

"We were actually able to achieve 95 percent fertilization rate with literally probably a million eggs," she said. "So it was really a massive spawn, and even with only the 30 or so colonies that we have in the systems, we have the potential to produce hundreds of thousands - maybe even millions - of coral offspring for years to come. This brings us hope for the Florida reef tract, because this species isn't really reproductive in the wild anymore."

Florida Aquarium CEO Roger Germann said this was an historic event.

"Making history equals hope. So there is hope for North America's Great Barrier Reef," he said. "There is hope to restore the Florida coral reef tract and coral reefs around the globe."

Coral spawning
Credit Florida Aquarium
Coral spawns in this photograph from the Florida Aquarium

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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