For those of us who are adults, in our lifetime, we have lost 40 percent of the world’s corals due to ocean warming and acidification from climate change, pollution, fishing and blast fishing, removing coral from the ocean, and even digging canals. The numbers are even more devastating in the Great Barrier Reef where 89 percent of the baby corals have died.
The Earth’s coral reefs were formed some 240 million years ago, according to the Coral Reef Alliance, and most of the established coral reefs we see today are 5,000 to 10,000 years old. But in just one generation, human beings may destroy them all if we don’t act quickly.
The accelerated die-off is so disastrous that biologist Dr. David Vaughan said, only half-jokingly, that coral reef scientists were so distraught they would need a support group to cope with the devastation.
The Rainforests of the Sea
Coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea. They are a foundation of life in the ocean as rainforests are a foundation of life on land, supporting countless species, including human beings. We must address the issues that are causing this die-off, including fighting climate change, reducing pollution, and eliminating over-fishing.
However, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Dr. Vaughan stumbled upon, which has undoubtedly given a reason for coral scientists not to kill themselves. In fact, Dr. Vaughan opted to postpone his retirement when he made the discovery, quite by accident.
Coral is naturally slow-growing. It can take coral up to 75 years to reach sexual maturity, at which point it can reproduce. Less-studied by coral scientists, the slow-growing massive coral, which forms the foundation of coral reefs, grows at a rate of about one pin-head per year.
Dr. Vaughan was working in his lab at Mote Marine Laboratory in the Florida Keys when, feeling disillusioned by the rate of growth, he decided to put the massive coral he was working with “on the back burner” of the aquarium – meaning, he was putting it aside so he could instead focus on the sexier, faster growing corals. That’s when he accidentally broke a piece. Having broken the coral, he was sure it would be so stressed that it would be “toast” as he said.
Two weeks later, he went to check on the broken piece or coral, which had a dime-sized hole in it when he broke it. To his shock, in the two-week period, the coral had repaired itself, filling in the hole. Normally, that amount of growth would have taken two years.
Here’s a video from The Atlantic of Dr. Vaughan talking about his discovery:
Just Like the Human Body
Just as the human body races to repair itself when injured, so does coral. Reacting to the stress of breaking, the coral quickly began to repair itself. With further experimentation, Dr. Vaughan developed a process called microfragmenting, which stimulates small pieces of coral to grow at a rate that’s 25 to 40-times faster than normal. Dr. Vaughan and his team realized that even one small polyp of coral can grow faster with this process. Then, small groups of coral will fuse together to form larger groups.
Using this method, scientists and conservationists are now planting thousands of pieces of coral around the Florida Reef Tract, with millions more planned for around the world. In addition, the scientists are working on ways to grow corals that will be able to tolerate the above-average temperatures and other manmade hazards that have impacted their natural habitats.