Getting coral to reproduce "in captivity," something that may occur on one or two "magic" nights in August with the help of the Moon, is the next step in a national plan to save several species of the marine animal from a serious disease in Florida
Over the past five years, 23 species of Florida coral have been attacked by an endemic disease, a situation that has united the scientific community to remove about 1,000 healthy coral specimens from the ocean, keeping them alive "in captivity" and - the most difficult part of the plan - getting them to reproduce outside their natural environment.
Instead of competing to be the number one entity or agency in preserving coral, about 60 government and private organizations are joining forces hoping to save some of the 60 species of coral in the US - out of the 600-700 species that exist worldwide - Andrew Baker, a professor of marine biology at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, told EFE.
The problem is so critical, Baker said, that for the first time a state environmental organization this year allowed some 15 species of coral to be removed from the Florida Keys before the disease could attack them.
Some 800 of the collected coral specimens are under the care of David Ehrens, also with the Rosenstiel School, and he and his staffers feed them with plankton powder, keep the water temperature between 27-28 degrees C (80-82 F), supply precise doses of sunlight and continually review "whether they're sickly, if they're not ... happy."
Ehrens told EFE that it's not completely clear whether the coral will reproduce outside their natural environment since there are many physical and chemical aspects that influence them.
"Various things tell the coral to reproduce. The most well-known is the lunar cycle, and that occurs in August," he said.
Thus, next month there will be a big opportunity to try and get the coral to reproduce in captivity, with the scientists all the while imitating their habitat as best they can.
"The magnificent and fascinating thing about coral is that on one or two nights per year, many species of coral typically release their eggs and sperm and they mix," the eggs get fertilized and tiny coral larvae are produced, Baker said.
He noted that coral are animals although that's often hard for people to believe, and there are male, female and hermaphroditic individuals which potentially and "in theory" could produce "hundreds or even thousands of coral babies" in the tanks where they are being kept.
Regarding the disease, Baker said that "probably" it's of bacteriological origin because "it responds to antibiotics" and it may well be related to the passage of the many cruise ships in the region.
"Perhaps it's being carried by ships," warned Baker, saying that the places where the disease has appeared "don't really coincide with the natural ocean circulation patterns" but rather with the proximity of ports.
He said that the disease, which is threatening some 22-23 of the 50 species that exist in Florida waters, was noted for the first time in September 2014 in Virginia Key, near the Port of Miami, and it's spread in recent months to the Virgin Islands, Jamaica and even Mexico.
This emergency spurred scientists to remove coral specimens from the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas National Park, the southernmost areas of the Florida Reef - which is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. It is the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world - which so far have not been attacked by the disease, and place most of them in tanks at the Rosenstiel School to protect them before the disease spread and "kills them."
The idea, he said, is to preserve all that genetic diversity, which could be "really important" in helping the coral survive in the future.
"We're preserving the genetic diversity of about 15 of the 22 species," said the biologist, who along with his team is sharing the coral specimens with US member institutions of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums who will take on the difficult task of getting them to reproduce.
The disease has worried biologists because of the number of species it's affecting and, also, its persistence.
Most coral diseases tend to affect just one or two species, Baker said.
He also emphasized that the majority of coral diseases occur during the hot summer months and then, when the temperatures begin to decline in winter, they disappear.
However, that has not been the case with this particular disease, the pathogen for which is - so far - unknown, thus making it impossible to isolate it, then reintroduce it to the coral and see if it is truly the problem.
This disease, known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss, is unusual in the sense that "it seems like it's not going to disappear," Baker emphasized.
Both scientists have placed their hopes for rescuing these animals on this project sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and dozens of organizations.
They hope that one day, when the disease is eliminated, "to reintroduce" these preserved animals into the ocean because saving the ones that are still in the wild with antibiotics seems to be out of the question.
"It's very difficult on the scale on which you have to do it in a reef to halt or reverse the disease," Baker said.