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Shedd Aquarium Scientists Return from 2-Week Research Expedition to Study Corals

New coral research project aims to help coral reefs survive in a changing climate

December 16, 2019

A diver ties dangling coral polyps to a tall propagation frame.

Shedd Aquarium scientists set out for The Bahamas for two weeks this fall on a multi-institutional research expedition to study corals and continue coral restoration efforts that will help sustain coral reefs within the waters of The Bahamas and across the planet. The research expedition marked the beginning a long-term investigation into how the genetics of coral species make them more or less tolerant of changing ocean temperatures—a result of climate change that is causing mass coral mortality in reefs across the globe. The new research can identify corals that are naturally robust, helping prioritize restoration efforts and informing interventions that would boost the resilience of coral reefs.

Aboard Shedd’s 80-foot research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, scientists from Shedd Aquarium,the Perry Institute for Marine Science, Cape Eleuthera Institute, Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, University of South Florida and University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science transplanted 600 fragments of staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis, across four different coral nurseries in The Bahamas—Bimini, Nassau, Eleuthera and Cat Island—that span a gradient of warmer and cooler temperatures. By moving the fragments between nurseries, the team can analyze the coral fragments’ growth over time in various water temperatures. The transplantation is one the largest ever completed.

“By measuring the growth and performance of these corals over the next few years, we’ll be able to tell, for example, which corals grow the fastest in Bimini where the water is warmer—these may be warm-adapted genotypes that are particularly valuable to use in reef restoration,” said Dr. Ross Cunning, coral research biologist at Shedd Aquarium and lead scientist of the research expedition. “Other genotypes may grow faster in Cat Island where the water is cooler, and others may show no response to temperature. By studying the differences between coral individuals, and then looking at the genomes of each one, we can start to identify the genetic signatures of strong coral genotypes with high restoration value.”

The research team also collected over 2,000 genetic biopsies from corals during the expedition. The samples, which will be analyzed in Shedd’s on-site Microbiome Laboratory, will help the researchers understand how a coral species’ genetics make it a more resilient coral, which can be leveraged to create climate-ready coral nurseries to support restoration efforts and accelerate the spread of resilient traits throughout coral populations.

VISUALS: Available for download: https://personal.filesanywhere.com/fs/v.aspx?v=8e6969885f6174afae66.

Photo Credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Video Credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Sam Cejtin

DESCRIPTION: Scientists from Shedd Aquarium and partner organizations spent two weeks in The Bahamas studying corals and transplanting coral fragments across nurseries in different water temperatures. Photos and video depict the researchers diving in the waters of The Bahamas at “coral nurseries,” which are artificial structures created to help fragments of corals grow before being placed out on reefs. As part of a complex transplantation design, the researchers can be seen bringing coral fragments to and from coral nurseries and Shedd Aquarium’s research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II.

BACKGROUND: An estimated 25% of marine life depends on healthy coral reefs for survival. Further, approximately half a billion people depend on them globally for food, coastal protection and income. Scientists estimate that we could lose 70 to 90% of coral reefs by 2050; and if we don’t take action now, there will be even greater loss. While mitigating climate change is essential to ensure a future for coral reefs, adaptive management and interventions are also needed to boost the resilience of corals, accelerate adaptive processes and maintain critical ecosystem goods and services.

While this research is new, Shedd’s commitment to coral conservation has continued for more than a decade. Applying its coral husbandry expertise, the aquarium has helped rescue corals and restore wild populations. This most recent effort is led by the Marine Research team in Shedd Aquarium’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research and aims to help coral reefs survive long-term. Those interested in participating in the next coral research expedition to The Bahamas can register for next year’s trip online at www.sheddaquarium.org/coral-research-expedition.

While advancing scientific research, Shedd’s policy experts are also urging Congress to mobilize critical resources to fund research and coral saving interventions, including the newly introduced Restoring Resilient Reefs Act of 2019. The Act, which modernizes the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, focuses on coral restoration where natural disasters and human activities have degraded reef ecosystems to promote wise management and sustainable use of coral reef ecosystems.

For more information about Shedd’s coral research, visit Shedd’s website here.