Coral reefs are declining worldwide due to global warming, ocean acidification, sedimentation, eutrification, African dust storms and mechanical damage, just to name a few. Caribbean scleractinian corals have declined as much as 90% in many locations. The Caribbean Elkhorn Coral, Acropora palmata and the Caribbean Staghorn Coral, Acropora cervicornis, are the two major reef building corals in the Caribbean. Both of these species are on the IUCN Red list of Endangered Species and both are listed as critically endangered. There is a reproductive bottleneck that is making it increasingly difficult for these corals to reproduce sexually in the wild.
SECORE has become the main coral reef conservation project in zoos and public aquariums around the world. Coral Reef Conservation on the Island of Curacao is a collaborative effort among public aquarium professionals and researchers. This collaboration links research efforts and excellence in coral reef husbandry, education and conservation. The mission of this endeavor is to develop techniques for the sexual propagation of the critically endangered corals. The goals of this project are three fold. The first goal is to reproduce these corals sexually as to enhance genetic diversity. The second goal is to use these sexually reproduced corals, growing in flow-thru systems, for coral reef restoration research efforts by outplanting them back onto the reefs at different sizes. The third goal is to monitor these corals at the outplant sites and in the flow-thru systems for growth and survivorship.
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The island of Curacao still has healthy Elkhorn corals that spawn every year during the once a year spawning event. This event usually takes place between the third and seventh night after the first full moon in August. SECORE has a team who works together to be out on the reef when this takes place. When corals are found that are getting ready to spawn, team members carefully net the colonies and collect the egg-sperm bundles (gametes) that are released. These gametes are taken back to the lab where they are separated and cross fertilized with gametes from other non-related colonies. Once fertilized, the embryos are put into specially designed kreisel tanks developed by the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the collaborating institutions for grow out into larvae.
After around 72 hours, the larvae are ready to settle. They are given the proper substrate which, for us, are pre-cultured with biofilms that give the larvae the proper chemical cues to initiate settlement. Once settled, the larvae will undergo metamorphosis into a primary polyp. These primary polyps will then start to divide asexually and start a new, genetically diverse, coral colony.
The mission of SECORE is to develop techniques for the sexual propagation of the critically endangered Caribbean Elkhorn Coral, Acropora palmata, and Caribbean Staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis.
Caribbean Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata)
This species of coral is structurally complex with many large branches. These branches create habitats for many other reef species such as lobsters, parrot-fish, snapper shrimps and other reef fish. The color of this coral species ranges from brown to a yellowish-brown.
Caribbean Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)
This species is a stony coral with cylindrical branches. Staghorn coral is found throughout the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the Caribbean islands and Venezuela.