The Great Barrier Reef, like most other coral reefs around the world’s oceans, is under threat from a number of sources, from the steadily acidifying waters of the sea to the impact of commercial fishing.
But a new effort to collect samples from the reef has established the first frozen repository of Great Barrier Reef corals that could one day be used to restore coral populations.
Coral reefs are dynamic ecosystems made up of coral polyps, the hard skeletons they live in, the symbiotic algae that feed them and the myriad fish and other plants and animals that support and are supported by the corals.
Corals are under severe pressure due to pollution from industrial waste, sewage, chemicals, oil spills, fertilizer, runoff and sedimentation from land; climate change; acidification; and destructive fishing practices.
Some marine scientists think that coral reefs and the marine creatures that rely on them may die off within the next 50-to-100 years, causing the first global extinction of a worldwide ecosystem since prehistoric times.
A team of researchers spent two weeks at the end of November collecting sperm and embryonic cells during spawning from two species of coral that live in the Great Barrier Reef, to create a freezer bank of these valuable organisms.
“It turns out we can produce significant numbers of developing larvae using the thawed sperm and that those larvae actually settle,” said Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Coral settling is the process in which a free-swimming, bowling pin-shaped coral larva metamorphoses into a single polyp baby coral.
“This is a huge milestone for us because if the larvae couldn’t metamorphose and settle, we wouldn