A new technique, discovered by accident a few years ago, can speed up coral growth by 25 times by breaking them into tiny little pieces. Discovered accidentally the process could now help replenish coral reefs and protect them from degradation. But how does it work? And why is it so important?
Dr David Vaughan was close to retirement several years ago before discovering a revolutionary new technique for speeding up the rate of growth in endangered corals. Now along with his team at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida he is on the front line of protecting coral reefs from the effects of climate change. Up to half of the coral on reefs in Florida and the Caribbean is believed to have been lost to bleaching and other diseases in the last few decades. Unfortunately corals are naturally very slow growing and are unable to recover faster than they are destroyed. But Dr Vaughan and his team are now turning this around by breaking corals into tiny little pieces. The technique known as ‘microfragmentation’ can help corals grow 25 times faster and the aim is to now use it to grow one million corals to replant back on Florida’s reefs.
One of the main things coral reefs are running out of, apart from an abundance of coral, is time. Rapid ecological change brought about by rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and other human caused stressors is massively reducing coral coverage on reefs around the world. The problem is they are so slow growing they cannot recover faster than they are destroyed. In particular ‘massive’ species such as brain, star, boulder and mounding corals which can be centuries old. These types will only grow a couple of centimetres a year and a colony will take decades to form. This has earned them the nickname ‘living rocks’ and is the reason why they are most at risk from things like coral bleaching. Some faster growing branching species such staghorn can be regrown relatively quickly in nurseries and introduced back onto the reefs. But until recently this has not possible for the ‘massive’ corals because it takes too long to grow them.
A happy accident
Dr David Vaughan is a highly experienced coral reef scientist and leads the coral restoration programme at the Mote Marine Laboratory research station in Florida. He accidentally stumbled onto a new technique of rapidly growing massive corals whilst moving some in a tank. He was frustrated by the slow growth of some samples of Elkhorn coral and decided to move them to a different area of the tank. As he picked it up and moved the sample some of the polyps (individual units of coral) broke off and fell to the bottom of the tank. He deemed them to be as good as dead and left them there claiming they would ‘be toast’. But when he returned a couple of weeks later what he discovered shocked and inspired him. The polyps had multiplied and grown to the size of the original sample which had previously taken over two years to grow. Dr Vaughan was close to retirement at the time of his discovery but claims “once we saw there was this technology for restoration, I had to stay”.