Thursday, March 19, 2015
Scientists Catch Up On The Sex Life Of Coral To Help Reefs Survive
For the first time, biologists have caught a rare type of coral in the act of reproducing, and they were able to collect its sperm and eggs and breed the coral in the laboratory.
To understand how this works, you need to know that coral reefs are actually colonies of tiny organisms encased in hard skeletons. In many kinds of coral, the whole colony reproduces at once, in a spectacular event called "broadcast spawning." Males eject clouds of sperm into the water, and then females do the same with eggs. The sea creatures cross their fingers (or whatever the coral equivalent of that is) and hope for the best.
Scientists have observed this sort of thing before, but not with pillar coral, a rare type found in the western Atlantic and Caribbean that forms columns, or pillars. Marine biologist Kristen Marhaver, of the University of California, Merced, says that's because the researchers' timing was off. "For years, scientists were underwater about 30 minutes after the pillar coral spawned," she explains.
They were late in those expeditions because they were focusing on a different type of coral — elkhorn. As it turns out, elkhorn coral spawns just after the pillar coral does. Typically divers were still suiting up for the elkhorn spawning, Marhaver says, when the pillar coral was busy reproducing beneath their boat — and the divers would miss the pillar coral action completely.
Three years ago, Marhaver and colleagues — with a group called Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity, on the island of Curacao — figured that out. Eventually they nailed down the pillar coral's mating moment.