Spawning the Future of Caribbean Coral Reefs

Coral spawning is perhaps the most spectacular natural event I have ever witnessed.

A  Pseudodiploria strigosa  colony releases its gamete bundles off the coast of Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

A Pseudodiploria strigosa colony releases its gamete bundles off the coast of Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

Orbicella faveolata  colony releasing its gamete bundles.

Orbicella faveolata colony releasing its gamete bundles.

During only a few nights each summer, many of the Caribbean’s important reef-building corals coordinate to reproduce simultaneously through mass spawning. Using cues from the environment such as lunar cycle, water temperature, and day length, sexually mature colonies release their gametes (eggs and sperm) into the water column in near perfect synchronization with other colonies of the same species. By releasing their gametes all at once, these adults increase the chances that their eggs will be successfully fertilized.

Our group of coral researchers, ready to observe spawning off the coast of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. This team includes researchers from SECORE International, the Perry Institute of Marine Science, The Nature Conservancy, Shedd Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Miami, NOVA Southeastern University, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, and the Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

Our group of coral researchers, ready to observe spawning off the coast of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. This team includes researchers from SECORE International, the Perry Institute of Marine Science, The Nature Conservancy, Shedd Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Miami, NOVA Southeastern University, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, and the Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

Each summer since starting my Ph.D., I have had the privilege of witnessing and studying this incredible phenomenon with diverse, multi-disciplinary research teams. In July 2017 and 2018, I joined a team of coral researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for coral spawning work in Key Largo. In September 2018, I spent a week at the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas for coral spawning work with researchers from SECORE International, The Perry Institute for Marine Science, Shedd Aquarium, the Nature Conservancy, and other organizations.

Coral spawning research is very hard work that requires all hands on deck. The team dives every night for approximately a week after the full moon to observe the colonies that spawn, collects gametes from as many of them as possible, cross-fertilizes gametes from different colonies to create a variety of genotypes, raises the larvae until they settle, and uses them for restoration efforts or experiments.

The process begins about an hour before sunset each evening, when our team of scientific divers enters the water to identify the colonies we suspect might spawn later that evening. We mark each colony we intend to monitor with different colored buoys, so that later when collecting gametes we can use corresponding colored jars to help keep each parent colony’s gametes separate from one another. Depending on the location, we focus on a few key reef-building species, including Acropora palmata (commonly known as elkhorn coral), Orbicella faveolata (mountainous star coral), and Pseudodiploria strigosa (symmetrical brain coral). Each pair of dive buddies also takes advantage of the daylight to orient ourselves within the reef so that we will feel comfortable and familiar with its layout while navigating in the dark a few hours later.

Then, we return to the boat, switch our dive gear over to new tanks, snack on sandwiches, chit-chat and wait until night falls; that's when the real show begins.

Two divers map out the reef on their underwater slates around 7:30 pm, while there is enough daylight to see their surroundings.

Two divers map out the reef on their underwater slates around 7:30 pm, while there is enough daylight to see their surroundings.

One of the adult  O. faveolata  colonies we suspected to spawn later in the evening.

One of the adult O. faveolata colonies we suspected to spawn later in the evening.

Orbicella faveolata  polyps by day.

Orbicella faveolata polyps by day.

A diver carries buoys to attach to each colony we suspect might spawn after dark. The colors of the buoys help divers identify the genotype of the colony for later cross-fertilization of gametes.

A diver carries buoys to attach to each colony we suspect might spawn after dark. The colors of the buoys help divers identify the genotype of the colony for later cross-fertilization of gametes.

The sun sets over John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, FL as the NOAA coral research team waits for coral spawning to begin.

The sun sets over John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, FL as the NOAA coral research team waits for coral spawning to begin.

A diver waits for this  A. palmata  colony to release its gamete bundles. The net over the colony will collect them as they float towards the surface.

A diver waits for this A. palmata colony to release its gamete bundles. The net over the colony will collect them as they float towards the surface.

At approximately 10:30 PM, when the sky has completely darkened and stars twinkle above us, we splash again. Equipped with underwater flashlights and multicolored glow sticks fastened to our gear, we penetrate the pitch darkness of the reef to find the marked colonies. Once we locate them, we watch the polyps closely with our flashlights to look for signs that they are ready to spawn.

Corals aren't the only organisms active at night on the reefs. Bioluminescent ctenophores drift like spaceships through the dark water, nurse sharks munch crustaceans off the sea floor, dinner-plate-sized reef spider crabs crawl atop massive coral colonies, and schools of shimmering silver barracuda circle and watch us silently as we work.

A bioluminescent ctenophore drifts through the dark water like a spaceship.

A bioluminescent ctenophore drifts through the dark water like a spaceship.

A curious queen triggerfish ( Balistes vetula ) checks out the divers as they work.

A curious queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula) checks out the divers as they work.

A flamingo tongue snail ( Cyphoma gibbosum ) clings to a soft coral.

A flamingo tongue snail (Cyphoma gibbosum) clings to a soft coral.

A reef spider crab ( Mithrax spinosissimus ) crawls atop a colony of  Siderastrea siderea .

A reef spider crab (Mithrax spinosissimus) crawls atop a colony of Siderastrea siderea.

A shrimp picks algae off the underside of an  A. palmata  colony.

A shrimp picks algae off the underside of an A. palmata colony.

A hermit crab marches along near the base of an  A. palmata  colony.

A hermit crab marches along near the base of an A. palmata colony.

Acropora palmata  with bundles “set” - poised at the mouths of the polyps and ready to be released.

Acropora palmata with bundles “set” - poised at the mouths of the polyps and ready to be released.

Orbicella faveolata  with gamete bundles “set” just inside the mouths of each polyp.

Orbicella faveolata with gamete bundles “set” just inside the mouths of each polyp.

Gamete bundles accumulating at the apex of a collector net.

Gamete bundles accumulating at the apex of a collector net.

Most Caribbean corals are simultaneous hermaphrodites, producing both male and female gametes (eggs and sperm), packaging them together, and releasing them into the water column in single bundles. After over half an hour in the water, I finally see what I’ve been waiting for; as I hover over a colony, the beam of light from my underwater flashlight reveals unmistakable round bulges in the mouths of each polyp (pictured above). This means that the gamete bundles are “setting” and the coral is ready to spawn! With the help of my dive buddy, I race to place a “collector” – a conical mesh net with lead line at the base and an inverted jar at the apex – over the colony just in time. All at once, only a few minutes after the bundles set, the polyps release thousands of them into the water column. Positively buoyant, they float lazily upward while rocking side-to-side in the gentle surge. One by one, the tiny pinkish bundles trickle into the jar at the net’s apex.

A colony of  P. strigosa  releases its gamete bundles into the water column.

A colony of P. strigosa releases its gamete bundles into the water column.

O. faveolata  polyps with tentacles extended after releasing gamete bundles.

O. faveolata polyps with tentacles extended after releasing gamete bundles.

A collector net catches the bundles as they are released from this  O. faveolata  colony.

A collector net catches the bundles as they are released from this O. faveolata colony.

In the darkness around us, flashlights illuminate nets over other colonies, all releasing their bundles and spawning in synchrony. Some colonies are too large for the nets to completely cover them, so some of their gamete bundles escape collection and waft around us in the water column. The effect is strangely beautiful, like being inside of a dark snow globe. Although exhausted and cold from repetitive dives late at night, I always feel profoundly grateful to view this natural phenomenon that so few people will ever see. Despite the damage that Caribbean corals have endured due to climate change, pollution, overfishing, and other stressors, these threatened animals successfully interpret cues from nature to reproduce and give reefs a future. Witnessing the start of new life in this important ecosystem, which supports a vast diversity of marine life and sustains growing Caribbean communities, I feel that our research can make a difference. In those moments, I know that I had made the right decision to dedicate my career to studying and conserving coral reefs.

Once the bundles fill about 20% of the jar, we cap it off, label which colony it came from, replace it with a new jar, and bring the bundles to the boat. Onboard, team members on dedicated “surface support” duty are careful to keep jars of gametes from colonies of different genotypes separate until they are ready to cross-fertilize them, diligently tracking which batches of bundles they eventually mix. Not long after being released, these bundles will break up into individual eggs and sperm and fertilize the gametes of other colonies. We want to keep track of which parent colonies created each batch of larvae in order to compare the relative fitness of their offspring over the following days and months.

After we cross eggs and sperm from different parent colonies, we quantify fertilization success by viewing the gametes under a microscope. The bumpy, fuzzy-looking dots are fertilized embryos that have begun the process of cell division, while the smooth circles are unfertilized eggs.

After we cross eggs and sperm from different parent colonies, we quantify fertilization success by viewing the gametes under a microscope. The bumpy, fuzzy-looking dots are fertilized embryos that have begun the process of cell division, while the smooth circles are unfertilized eggs.

Just like that, as suddenly as the bundles appeared and were released, the spawning event is over. We collect our nets and colony markers, haul ourselves back onto the boat, and speed back to land to assess fertilization success and begin experiments with the larvae that will start developing soon.

Back on land, we distribute our crossed gamete batches into new containers at lower concentrations and give them fresh, clean seawater. The team stays up late into the night – often past 4:00 am – squinting into the lenses of microscopes to quantify fertilization success and watch as new coral embryos begin to develop into larvae.

A 3-day-old swimming larva, viewed under a microscope. They have cilia (tiny hair-like structures) that vibrate to help the larva move.

A 3-day-old swimming larva, viewed under a microscope. They have cilia (tiny hair-like structures) that vibrate to help the larva move.

We regularly provide these swimming  O. faveolata  larvae with fresh seawater to minimize mortality. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

We regularly provide these swimming O. faveolata larvae with fresh seawater to minimize mortality. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

It is important to provide the larvae that remain in our land-based lab with fresh seawater regularly to maximize their survival. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

It is important to provide the larvae that remain in our land-based lab with fresh seawater regularly to maximize their survival. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

Over the next few days, we monitor the developing larvae closely, as corals generally experience high mortality during early life stages. Part of this mortality can be density-dependent; as larvae die, they break apart and release lipids that can trap and suffocate other larvae (Graham et al., 2008). To avoid this problem, we disperse the larvae as much as possible. Researchers at SECORE International have pioneered a method for culturing a large portion of the larvae they collect in floating in-water pools (see below for photos), which provides and a constant flow of fresh seawater and washes out contamination from dying larvae. For the larvae that remain in our land-based lab, we maintain low densities by distributing them among many different containers. We provide fresh seawater and remove dead larvae from these containers multiple times each day.

SECORE International has pioneered a method for raising and settling coral larvae in floating, in-water pools. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

SECORE International has pioneered a method for raising and settling coral larvae in floating, in-water pools. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

We provide pre-conditioned, 3D-printed substrates in a variety of shapes for the larvae in SECORE’s floating pools to settle on. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

We provide pre-conditioned, 3D-printed substrates in a variety of shapes for the larvae in SECORE’s floating pools to settle on. Photo: Paul Selvaggio

A 3-day-old, actively swimming  Diploria labyrinthiformis  larva.

A 3-day-old, actively swimming Diploria labyrinthiformis larva.

Over a period of days, the larvae progress from ball-shaped passive drifters to oblong active swimmers. We provide the larvae in SECORE’s floating pools and in the lab with terra-cotta or ceramic substrates for them to settle on (see above for photos). These substrates, usually in the shape of small tiles, plugs, or tetrapods, were preconditioned on local reefs for weeks before being presented to the larvae so they could develop the biofilm of micro-organisms found in a natural reef environment that serve as positive settlement cues for coral larvae. In addition, the substrate surfaces have been designed with small grooves that larvae prefer to settle in to avoid damage from organisms that scrape and graze the reef floor. After a few days, the swimming larvae sink out of the water column, select their permanent homes by attaching to the substrates we provide them, and metamorphose into polyps with mouths and tentacles.

After a few days of drifting and swimming in the water column, coral larvae settle to the sea floor and metamorphose into polyps. These  Orbicella faveolata  larvae have recently selected their new homes on a pre-conditioned ceramic plug.

After a few days of drifting and swimming in the water column, coral larvae settle to the sea floor and metamorphose into polyps. These Orbicella faveolata larvae have recently selected their new homes on a pre-conditioned ceramic plug.

Once coral larvae settle and metamorphose, they begin to take up algal cells from their environment, which live inside their tissues in a symbiotic relationship. The brown dots visible in this  Orbicella faveolata  recruit are its algal symbionts.

Once coral larvae settle and metamorphose, they begin to take up algal cells from their environment, which live inside their tissues in a symbiotic relationship. The brown dots visible in this Orbicella faveolata recruit are its algal symbionts.

Finally, after the SECORE and NOAA teams have cared for settlers for several weeks, they are outplanted on their substrates back to a local reef to rejoin the native population. Outplanting sexually-produced coral recruits help to seed degraded reefs with new individuals and new genetic diversity, ultimately helping combat reef decline.

So why do we do all of this? Why do we deprive ourselves of sleep for a week or more at a time to collect and rear things we can barely see with the naked eye? Read Part 2 of this article - “Starting Them Young: Enhancing Survival and Success During Coral Early Life Stages” - to find out!

-Liv

(All photographs in this article provided by Liv Williamson unless otherwise noted.)


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