New technique makes cheap and healthy coral reef babies

Don’t baby your babies—after two weeks of life, just toss them in the water and see what happens. The results will be 10 times more effective and 25 times cheaper.

These are new claims behind an experimental approach to create an orphanage for coral reefs. Instead of raising young corals for years in a pricey laboratory, remove them soon after reproduction and hurl them onto a natural reef, where they will face menacing microbes and strange sponges. The toughest babies will survive and eventually reach emancipation.

The harsh beginning is like thrusting an infant onto a brutal, muddy obstacle course with thousands of steroid-driven adult competitors. Coral experiments on the southern Caribbean island of Curacao are proving that two-week old infants survive better in the wild than the typical two-year old from the laboratory. But there must be some element of shock.

 

skip to 15:40 to see Valerie Chamberland discuss the “only specimen in the world in artificial conditions.”

“Oh my God, what is this new world!” says the youthful marine scientist Valerie Chamberland, imagining the reaction of a baby coral moving from the laboratory to the ocean only two weeks after fertilization. She says babies left in the laboratory too long become spoiled and unable to transition into the real, cruel world.

“When you raise baby corals in an aquarium, they get used to it,” she says. “We give them a reality check right away.”

Valerie Chamberland
Valerie Chamberland works with the world’s smallest corals.

At a recent meeting of specialists in Caribbean marine environments, Chamberland reported positive and cost-saving results from a few years of piloting the technique. A true internationalist, the native of Quebec works in Curacao and is finishing a doctorate for the University of Amsterdam, with funding from the German SECORE Foundation.

Taking risks with young corals is paying off.

“We didn’t know if it would work at all,” she says, sitting at a table just a few feet from the beach at the Carmabi Research Station in Curacao. The center celebrated its 60th anniversary last week when it hosted the meeting of the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean, where Chamberland and nearly 200 other scientists shared their findings.

Coral reefs worldwide have suffered huge declines in the past few decades, and climate change threatens to eliminate them from the planet this century. Researchers are scrambling to create new restoration techniques that might help them recover—or at least buy some time. Similar to reforestation on land, the field of coral gardening is so new that no one really knows what methods will stick.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.
Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Plenty of people can raise corals for aquariums, but few know how to release them successfully into the wild. With a new tetrapod mold designed to fit into natural reefs, Chamberland and her team go scuba diving and deploy the baby corals in ten seconds flat.

“We just wedge them into the reef. It’s super fast,” she says with a smile. The new concrete tiles came from a contest held by the SECORE Foundation, which specializes in the sexual reproduction of corals. Chamberland works with SECORE’s president, Dirk Petersen, and board member Mark Vermeij, who organized the meeting in Curacao.

The initial process of creating coral babies in the laboratory is nearly as involved as humans seeking in-vitro. Divers must wait for the full moon and other cues to predict coral spawning.

“In the field, spawning is dictated by temperature and the lunar cycle,” says Chamberland. “We use a big spawning net and we tent the colonies. On the top is an inverted funnel.”

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.
Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

After they catch the buoyant eggs and sperm, divers haul them back to the lab, and mix. Coral larvae must attach themselves onto the palm-sized concrete tiles, which are much larger than previous models. It’s similar to a snail clinging to the Empire State building.

Soon to be published in a scientific journal, the technique has been proven with common brain corals. Now the team is expanding its use for endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals.

The hopeful findings were a trend at the week’s meeting of marine scientists, even though they recognize that threats are severe and growing. “Not everything is dead yet,”said Mark Vermeij, one of Chamberland’s co-experimenters, when introducing a plenary speaker. That speaker’s talk ended with a hashtag: #OceanOptimism.

The smallest of coral creatures are bringing optimism to beleaguered Caribbean reefs, because their harsh childhood could result in a new breed of survivors.

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