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Saving Reefs: Coral Spawn Update


Saving the Reefs: Coral Spawning Update

November  13, 2016

In August 2016, Georgia Aquarium researchers, along with other conservation focused organizations, assisted the Coral Restoration Foundation with staghorn coral spawn collection in Key Largo, Florida. This year marks the third annual spawning trip Aquarium researchers have participated in, but the first-ever trip where coral gametes of these endangered species were brought back to Georgia Aquarium. This is such an astounding milestone for Georgia Aquarium to partake in this extremely delicate process of growing coral in a controlled environment.

It has now been two months since about 12,000 gametes were brought back to Georgia Aquarium by team members Steve Hartter, senior aquarist, and Kim Stone, curator. The arrival was an event in itself and was meticulously calculated to make sure the coral larvae were in optimal condition after being collected in the Florida Keys. The collection, delivery and arrival timeline for these “coral babies” happened all in less than five days and looks about like this:

  • Day 1:
    • Coral spawning collection in the Florida Keys. Researchers and scientists dive in the late hours under the full moon to gather thousands of staghorn gametes to further research on this endangered species and help replenish the depleting coral populations.
    • Immediately following spawn collection, the crew rushes back to the Coral Restoration Foundation’s lab to separate the gamete bundles in order to fertilize and produce baby corals.
  • Days 2-3:
    • The coral larvae begin developing at the lab in Key Largo and are observed around-the-clock by the team members for 24 hours.
  • Day 4:
    • Once the corals have fertilized, they are now swimming and ready for transport. Some are prepared to be released back into the ocean while others are divided among Georgia Aquarium and other zoological organizations, all with the hope to successfully settle, grow and form strong coral colonies.
    • Team member Kim travels back to Atlanta ahead of Steve to prepare the aquaculture room for coral arrival.
  • Day 5:
    • Team member Steve travels with extreme care of the 12,000 coral babies from Key Largo to Atlanta via airplane.
    • Upon arrival, Kim and Steve carefully place the coral babies in six different environments to see if one environment and setting would be more favorable than another.

As one can see, there is no time to waste when working with an immensely fragile animal such as coral. Creating the different environments was important to test a variety of options to better understand how to grow coral for future research. Once placed into the different environments, the coral began to settle and form a primary polyp, meaning they are starting to attach to a sedentary object.

Stone and Hartter with the precious arrival of the 12,000 coral babies

“Coral depletion is a world-wide epidemic with many causes,” said Kim Stone, curator of fish and invertebrates at Georgia Aquarium. “That’s what makes coral restoration efforts so important, and having the opportunity to participate in the annual coral spawning is amazing. When the coral spawns, it looks like it’s snowing underwater and it’s a beautiful sight.”

Coral takes many years to grow and is still very small. The coral is examined regularly under a microscope to make sure they are growing and thriving. In order to see the coral properly, a black light is used. Most corals fluoresce under a black light due to the zooxanthella in their tissue. To make sure the coral keeps growing and stays healthy, it is the job of Georgia Aquarium researchers and scientists to provide a safe and clean environment. This includes excellent water quality and all the trace elements in the water for it to absorb and grow its skeleton. Various food items are also used for the coral to filter feed out of the water column now that they have tentacles.

The coral is growing and thriving here at Georgia Aquarium. We are absolutely thrilled and excited to better understand the growing process of coral. Georgia Aquarium staff have dedicated thousands of laboratory and field hours to planting corals onto the reef and studying their long-term survivorship in the current ocean conditions, including rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and many other factors. Continued research and conservation efforts will help researchers find a way to help coral populations thrive in their changing environment.

For more information about Georgia Aquarium coral research and conservation efforts, please visit To learn more about coral and its importance, visit Georgia Aquarium’s Tropical Diver exhibit. For updates on our coral spawning mission, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with #CoralSpawn2016.

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