Coral may be tiny animals that live in vast networks under the ocean, but they are a big part of a healthy marine ecosystem, tourism, and fishing industries. Over 60% of coral reefs are under threat by human activities, despite coral reefs being a source of rich biodiversity and a potential source of medicines. The coral reefs that exist today have taken hundreds and thousands of years to develop, with some reefs dating back to 50 million years ago. Coral reefs are responsible for supporting 25% of marine life, so protecting them for generations to come is of utmost importance. Saving corals from eradication and slowed reproduction rates may require the use of transplantation.

Bringing On The Heat

If you fancy a dip in the ocean while on vacation, you might find that the water is warmer than in the past. Observing the health of coral reef populations throughout the world have helped scientists uncover how much human behavior impacts the seas. Rampant climate change has led to widespread ocean acidification, coral bleaching events, and has disrupted a precious equilibrium in the ocean. Ocean acidification has rapidly bleached the Great Barrier Reef, leaving only seven percent unaffected. The rising acidity of the oceans has led to coral reefs becoming brittle, slow growing, and unable to survive warmer temperatures.

Usually, coral bleaching is something that would take place every 27 years, but with climate change, a frequency of every 6 years is more common. If there are no effective actions taken to curb the level of rising carbon emissions, scientists have projected coral bleaching may take place every two years by 2030. Marine heat waves in 2016 and 2017 managed to wipe out 1/3 of the coral population. Increasing severe storms, lowered oxygen levels in the ocean, and stress from sweltering temperatures have triggered disease outbreaks and disrupted coral reproduction.

Protecting An Integral Life Support System

Coral is more than it appears in our world’s oceans, as it provides a source of food and shelter for sea creatures, regulates carbon dioxide in the water, and protects shorelines. If coral reefs were to disappear, vulnerable lands would be under threat, communities that thrive on fishing to survive would struggle, and marine life would be at a disadvantage. Thanks to coral and other essential living creatures within the marine ecosystem, the planet receives a considerable amount of oxygen for life below and above the surface. Since the Industrial Revolution, over 525 billion tons of carbon emissions have been absorbed by the world’s oceans. If the rate of carbon emissions does not drastically slow down or cease, the result for coral and life on Earth may be catastrophic.

Coral reefs are visually fascinating, providing a wondrous backdrop for recreational swimmers, and may provide a source of future medicines. Some coral has managed to survive the onslaught of human-created destruction and pollution, which have caused many sensitive species to whither away from stress, disease, or disrupted feedings.

Climate Change Demands Human Intervention

Australia has maintained a stance of not interfering with the sensitive ecological systems in the ocean, including coral reefs. Unfortunately, severe climate changes have forced a change in position. A report released by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine sounded the alarm for human intervention to take place to save coral reefs under threat.

Coral polyps typically come out at night to feed, but rising temperatures have unhinged natural feeding cycles and food sources. The risk of predators to coral, disease, stress, and higher carbon dioxide levels are throwing nature off balance. Scientists are turning to transplant coral that can withstand higher temperatures and salinity to repopulate at-risk coral reefs.

Successful Coral Transplants Transform Ecosystems

The recent task of transplanting viable coral to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia is not the only success story for undoing past damage. Transplanting coral has been used since the 1970s, encouraging repopulation of coral reefs going barren, and encouraging new coral species to take root and thrive. Coral biologist James E, Maragos first used coral transplants while working in Hawaii. Instead of damaging coral by transplanting a section of reef to a new location, baby nurseries are grown using a little bit of coral taken from donor reefs, reducing damage.

Opal Reef is a tourist location that brings in divers who enjoy the rich underwater view, and it is a prime location for current transplanted coral. Species of coral that can survive high-stress environments are being selected to rehabilitate the area, using small clippings that don’t harm the original. David Suggett of the Future Reefs Program holds a lot of optimism in the use of transplants and sees it as a critical practice to help correct areas of marine life blight, restabilize coral reef communities, and revert years of damage.

Exploring The Power Of Genetic Adaptation

Not all coral species are suitable for the job of being a transplant, to help existing coral populations fortify against climate change. One reason rising temperatures are damaging for most coral is that it triggers coral to eject the algae with which it has a symbiotic relationship for sustenance. Without photosynthetic algae, most coral is unable to survive, except for specific species that don’t rely on zooxanthellae and live in the deep sea.

The symbiotic relationship between most coral and zooxanthellae will support the recycling of nutrients in an environment devoid of nutrients. Photosynthesis triggers the zooxanthellae that live in the tissues of coral to produce glucose, amino acids, and glycerol. Coral takes the products of the algae and produces calcium carbonate and makes fats and proteins. The algae inside coral are responsible for coral’s color, and due to stressors like diseases, warm temperatures, and high acidity, bleaching and coral death can occur.

Scientists look for coral that is genetically different and can thrive in areas where volcanic emissions give off higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide emissions. One drawback with hardier species of coral is that their greater tolerance for high heat and bleaching events is coupled with a slower growth rate. Transplanting coral is not a 100% cure-all for rapidly reproducing coral that can survive the changing environment, but it is one step in the right direction to restore balance to a delicate ecosystem.