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A school of yellow fish, about the size of an adult's hand, swim among fan-like clumps of coral.
Shedd experts snorkle in the warm waters of the Caribbean as they wait and prepare for the annual elkhorn and staghorn coral spawning.

Corals and climate change

Corals are animals that rely on tiny, colorful algae living inside their tissues to provide the majority of their nutrition through photosynthesis. When waters are too warm, this symbiotic relationship breaks down, causing corals to “bleach”—that is, turn white as they lose their vital algae partners. Without their primary food source, bleached corals often succumb to starvation or disease, and the mass mortality of bleached corals threatens the entire reef ecosystem.

Some corals, however, show a remarkable ability to survive stressful bleaching events, which may reflect specialized genetic adaptation, or a relationship with thermally tolerant symbiotic algae. These glimmers of hope suggest that some corals possess the ingredients for survival in warming oceans, and that harnessing this natural resilience may allow us to accelerate adaptive processes in coral populations and restore degraded reefs.

“If we don’t address climate change, we won’t have coral reefs. But with smart science we can help corals through this turbulent time to continue building reefs for future generations.”

Ross Cunning, Ph.D., Research Biologist

Reef restoration

Scientists and practitioners around the world are working to restore reefs by growing corals in underwater nurseries and by seeding reefs with baby corals generated by sexual coral reproduction. To maximize the success of these efforts, Shedd is working with partners at SECORE International, the Perry Institute for Marine Science and the University of Miami to breed the most robust corals and produce new generations of climate-resilient corals to seed reefs of the future.

Tiny coral polyps can barely be seen growing on submerged ceramic tetrapods, designed to provide a good place for spawning corals to attach themselves.
Coral grows wild off the coast of the Bahamas, in large bulbous mounds and stumpy, upwards-reaching branches.

Identifying adaptability in the DNA

Shedd is expanding coral monitoring throughout the Bahamas by using its research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, to collect samples of coral DNA. These samples are then analyzed using our state-of-the-art genetics laboratory back at Shedd to identify the genetic traits that may help corals survive and adapt in warming oceans. Identifying naturally robust corals will help to prioritize conservation efforts, to build climate-ready coral nurseries and restore degraded reefs and to accelerate the spread of resilient traits through coral populations.

From the Bahamas to reefs around the world

While mitigating climate change is the most important step to secure a future for coral reefs, active intervention and restoration approaches are also necessary to help maintain the critical ecosystem goods and services we get from reefs, from protein-rich seafood to protective buffer zones between land and sea. As the threats facing coral reefs grow, Shedd’s work in developing and applying novel, science-based coral conservation approaches in the Bahamas helps to ensure the future survival of coral reefs around the world.

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