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Sex in the Sea


It may not be romantic, but it really is quite fascinating. Generally a few days after the full moon in August, an amazing event takes place off the Florida Keys.

It's a late-night annual event, triggered in part by the August full moon.

Coral spawning is described by some scientists as an explosion of eggs and sperm. This year researchers at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are collecting coral spawn to study and reproduce coral in the laboratory. Test tube baby coral will then be used to restore damaged reef in the shallow waters near Key Largo, Florida.

Ecologist Margaret Miller explains. "We are working to develop ways to grow new corals; to settle onto reefs where most of them have been lost, particularly focusing on species of corals that don't recruit well on their own."

Miller says scientists are learning more about the coral spawning, fertilization, and development each year. After collection, embryos are cultured in the lab for about a week, developing from fertilized eggs to full-fledged larvae.

"Then in about a week we hopefully will have lots of healthy larvae that are ready to settle on to the reef. And we'll take them back out into the field and sort of temporarily enclose them, actually at a reef restoration structure, and hopefully they'll be able to settle and make their home there to provide new home colonies for that restoration site."

The researchers are experimenting with mesh tents over the seeded coral to help them survive.

Coral colonies die each year from human disturbances and natural causes such as hurricanes and disease. More than 1500 square meters of reef were destroyed when a freighter grounded nearby.

"There has been a huge decline in live coral cover and the number of corals that are on the coral reefs over the past several decades,” says Miller. “Corals are the animals that build the structure of a coral reef. Without corals that structure and habitat gradually is lost, and so the habitat for fishes and other important organisms. A huge component of biodiversity is lost gradually if the corals are not continuing to construct that habitat, and so we are aiming to bring those live corals back."

Researchers say they have a lot to learn about coral and its life cycle. They hope their work will improve the coral's ability to survive and thrive.

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