Artificial Insemination for Coral Reefs

A key component in many efforts to save dwindling and endangered populations of various wildlife around the world are the various breed-and-release programs. Many zoos participate in programs like this, where endangered species are bred among strong, healthy individuals, and their offspring is subsequently released into wild populations where their numbers, and genes, can help that population grow again in the wake of decimation from lost habitat or poachers.

But land animals aren’t the only ones under pressure from human activity. Coral reefs are under tremendous threat from unsustainable fishing methods, including aggressive trawling and dynamite fishing, pollution, improper anchoring, global warming and more. The problem is twofold: on one hand, corals are quite fragile, and even a few boats dropping anchor on top of a reef can destroy substantial amounts of corals — just imagine what a blast from a stick of dynamite can do. And on the other hand, corals are very slow to recuperate from damage, if they ever do. Most corals grow only up to a few inches a year, so even small damage takes decades or centuries to repair.

Artificial Insemination for Coral Reefs?

A new method developed by SECORE International shows signs of hope for what is essentially a breed-and-release program for corals. Growing the highly endangered elkhorn coral in laboratories, the organization was subsequently able to plant these corals on ocean reefs, where they continued to grow and thrive. And what is even more important: they are reproducing.

In 2011, researchers working with SECORE gathered offspring, essentially “coral pollen,” of elkhorn corals, and these were bred into viable specimens in laboratories. A year later they were planted on reefs in the Caribbean, one of the regions that has been hardest hit by coral loss, with an estimated 80 percent of all corals lost. Four years later, these corals are now breeding and reproducing, much sooner than anyone had dared hope for.

“We just learned that elkhorn corals can reach sexual maturity in only four years,” said Valérie Chamberland of SECORE in a press release. “This is exciting news, as we now know that offspring raised in the laboratory and out-planted to a reef can contribute to the natural pool of gametes during the annual mass-spawning of elkhorn corals within four years.”

SECORE uses a different method from typical laboratory-grown corals, in that most other projects use what is known as ‘coral gardening,’ wherein small fragments are harvested from living corals and then grown into full corals in a lab before being returned to the reef. Coral gardening risks being somewhat invasive if not done carefully, and the genetic code of the corals remains the same, but because SECORE’s corals actually grow similar to how they would in nature, they generate new DNA sequences, ensuring a richer, healthier coral population. The elkhorn coral is a particularly interesting subject, as it plays a key role in reef health. Its wide, branched structure, similar to an elk’s horn, helps protect the reef and other corals during storms, as well as offering protection to a vast range of animal life. It’s hoped that this breed-and-release program will offer relief not only to the Caribbean corals, but corals worldwide.

SECORE is a multinational organization, specializing the in the sexual reproduction of corals. They are based in Ohio in the United States, and in Germany. Their work is based on the research done by Dr. Dirk Petersen at the Rotterdam Zoo in Holland.

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