Undersea mission could lead to improved coral reef restoration

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Washington, June 15 : Scientists are conducting an eight day undersea mission to determine why some species of coral survive transplanting after a disturbance, while other species die, which could lead to improved coral reef restoration.

Coral reefs worldwide are suffering from the combined effects of hurricanes, global warming, and increased boat traffic and pollution.

As a result, their restoration has become a priority among those who are concerned.

Using as a home base, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Aquarius - an underwater facility for science and diving located in Key Largo, Florida, a team of "aquanauts" is working to protect coral reefs from this barrage of threats by investigating ways to improve their restoration.

"It's like living on the space station, except that it's underwater," said Iliana Baums, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State and a collaborator on the project.

Scientists on the base are conducting an experiment to determine why some species of coral survive transplanting after a disturbance, such as a storm, while other species die.

Baums is providing the genetic expertise that will reveal whether particular coral colonies contain forms of genes that allow them to survive transplantation and other stresses, such as increasing sea temperatures.

So far, the team has collected hundreds of coral fragments from two species: staghorn coral, which is listed as threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act, and a type of star coral that is common throughout the Caribbean.

The researchers are splitting each of the fragments in half and placing one half in a shallow site (30 feet deep) and the other half in a deep site (60 feet deep) to see how they respond over time.

"By splitting the fragments, we know that they are the same genetically, and we then can determine whether their abilities to withstand transplanting are due to their genetic makeup or to some environmental factor," said Baums.

Baums and Margaret Miller, a scientist with the NOAA and the project's leader, are transplanting corals into the shallow site.

Once the animals are established, the team will return to the sites monthly to measure, among other things, the corals' growth rates, their photosynthesis rates, and the biodiversity of the beneficial algae that live inside their cells.

The scientists expect that the study's results will help them to improve coral restoration efforts in the future.

"The experiment will tell us why some corals die while others live after transplantation," said Baums.

"Coral reefs are important because they protect our shores from wave action and create habitat for fish," he added.

ANI

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