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Scientists are preparing to save the Florida ridge from the killer's disease


Coral reef

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

One sunny afternoon at the Dania beach, dozens of scientists unloaded the crates of full corals from a diving boat and a pickup truck. They carefully took out every piece of large tanks on deck and put them in smaller containers, which were slowly taken to land.

The operation is part of what scientists describe as a "Nobody's chest" mission to save corals from extinction as a mysterious disease that devastates a mile after a mile of the Florida ridge. Since it was first spotted in 2014, the disease has killed colonies that have already been weakened by the effects of climate change, including frequent whitening rounds and increased acidity of the oceans.

During a trip earlier this month, the researchers spent six days of diving in the Lower Keys in order to collect corals that had not yet touched the epidemic of the so-called disease from the loss of coral tissue. Their mission, as suggested by "Ark", is the preservation of healthy examples of species that can be grown in laboratories, and then later transplants back to the barrier ridge that is parallel to the shores of southeast Florida.

"It is a strenuous effort, but we must do everything in our power to help survive the corals," said Richard Dodge, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Halmos University, New Southeastern, while he watched university staff and volunteers who held 341 coral tanks at the University Port across the Everglades.

NSU is one of the seven research institutions that will act as temporary hosts for samples collected for what is formally known as the Coral Collection Plan, part of an ambitious program run by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. NSU researchers will collect data on the species and then send them to other universities and zoos across the country, where they will be used to breed new colonies – seed supplies for potential renewal efforts in the future.

Challenges to survive the Florida ridge are huge. More than half of the corals have disappeared over the past 250 years, affected by development, pollution, ship anchors and earthing, frequent bleaching events and, recently, climate change. Warm sea temperatures, sea level rise and storm intensity change are all worrying, but the outbreak of stone loss of coral tissue beyond control over recent years has brought new urgency to the steps to save the corals.

If Florida's ridge disappears, it will erase economically valuable destinations that attract sailors and divers, but which are even more important for the biological health of offshore waters of southern Florida. Coral reefs create habitats that provide shelter and food to hundreds of species, from fish to lobster. The crest also serves as a buffer to protect the coastal areas from hurricane and storm surges.

Raising coral in the laboratory or even in coastal gardens is not new. However, recovery programs such as the one that joined NSU are becoming more sophisticated when threats increase. Most of the previous works are focused on large shells that have almost disappeared in the waters of South Florida – critically endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals.

This program extends restoration efforts, targeting species that are more susceptible to disease and die faster or those with a higher capacity to build a coral, which would speed up restoration.

During the journey from the southern keys to the NSU coral nursery, everything was carefully controlled to ensure that the corals remained healthy. They traveled in isolated containers in the shade of black tarpaulins. Water in reservoirs is constantly monitored to prevent even traces of disease from secreting the samples. It will only survive and, hopefully, guarantee a set of genetic resources in order to restore more colonies in the future.

Although some coral can look like rocks, they are very fragile and require a lot of love and care. The diversity of corals in the NSU's precious collection from Keys was surprising: some resembled small floral arrangements, while others looked like images of the emerald-green Irish village seen from above.

Removing from the ocean presents a challenging balance between power and delicacy: scientists divers use a chisel and a hammer to chip in spaces between the coral and the structure where it grows until it pops out.

In the NSU nursery, biologists at sea worked methodically to give the coral the best chance of survival by draining each piece into a solution of antibiotics and vitamins, flushing them and pouring them out to certain tanks.

"In these first days, bringing them from their homes into the ocean and moving them into our tanks, they can experience some stress, so we should avoid this at all costs," said Nick Turner, research assistant and laboratory manager at the NSU.

And it's not easy to keep the corals happily out of the ocean. Light and water conditions should be constantly monitored, with an appropriate level of nutrients to guarantee their survival in the NSU's nursery coral. The area is covered with light beige cloth to simulate damp sunlight that reaches the coral in their natural habitat, about 20 feet below the surface.

Kile Pisano, a self-proclaimed coral nanny from the university, says a worthwhile job is worth it. His job is not only to ensure that the corals survive the transition from NSU containers to the next stops in the rescue project, but also that they are healthy enough to reproduce.

"The overall purpose of this project and our work is to ensure that we get the best possible samples of different species, as they will enable the transplantation of new people," Pisano said.

Scientists know they are fighting against time they do not yet know. What is the cause? No one can say yet.

"We're trying to stop it and at the same time work on at least restoring some colonies," Dodge said.

Where are the corals best evolving? A scientist who explores optimal habitats

© 2019 Miami Herald

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Project of Noah's Ark & # 39; for corals: Scientists are struggling to save the Florida ridge from the killer disease (2019, May 30)
taken on May 30, 2019
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