Just once every year, when the tug of the moon and the warmth of the water is just right, coral reef colonies can simultaneously reproduce themselves with a stunning release of tiny new life.
In a dramatic feat of synchronized swimming, coral gametes — complements of egg and sperm — burst from their rocky perches all at once and drift toward the ocean's surface. It's a magical mating rite that generates fertile embryos within a fleeting time frame measured in mere hours.s
"The phenomenon," says a refreshingly lyrical explanation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "brings to mind an underwater blizzard with billions of colorful flakes cascading in white, yellow, red, and orange."
One day a year a special confluence of events leads to a burst of life among Florida's reefs.
The coral larva generated by this process float for days before dropping once more to the ocean floor — where, if conditions are sufficiently welcoming, a new colony can take root.
This month, just when we're all yearning for any kind of genuine uplift, Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory brings us tidings of joy: a discovery of the existence of gametes in two coral species that are part of a massive rescue project in the Florida Reef Tract near the Keys.
Mote's coral reproduction scientist, Dr. Hanna Koch, has confirmed pregnancies at restoration sites of mountainous star coral and branching staghorn coral, both particularly vital to the reef-building process because of their size.
"The presence of gametes," Mote's news release explains, "indicates that these corals are sexually mature, gravid (pregnant), and ready to produce the next generation of coral 'babies' with fresh genetics to help revive declining coral populations."
Mote operates the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration on Summerland Key, where its scientists developed a novel technique, microfragmentation fusion, which harnesses corals' natural healing process and allows them to grow 25 times faster than normal. A process that usually takes decades for the mountainous star coral, for example, has now been clocked at as little as five years.
This good news dovetails nicely with NOAA's $97 million, 15-year effort announced last December to restore seven other reefs in the vast tract, which is worth an estimated $6 million a year to Florida's economy.
The fledgling restoration sites have certainly taken a beating — including from climbing sea temperatures that caused a plague of global bleaching and Hurricane Irma in 2017 - but their resilience, and these signs of propagation, offer reasons to hope that generations of coral die-off might be reversible.
"This is a huge boost for our restoration efforts, as these corals provide critical ecosystem services and ecological benefits for associated species on the restored reefs, while indirectly accelerating the recovery of Florida's reef ecosystem through the production of offspring that can colonize surrounding reefs," Andrew Bruckner, research coordinator at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said in the statement from Mote.
This stellar achievement gives us a heartening proof of concept for the scientific method — at a most propitious time.
A version of this editorial originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD
Photo credit: joakant at Pixabay