Threatened coral reefs in Florida have an estimated $4 billion annual economic impact on the state. Researchers from the University of Central Florida are zeroing in on factors that could limit corals' survival.

Acropora grandis
(Photo: Nhobgood Nick / Wikimedia Commons)
Acropora grandis (Staghorn coral) forest

What are Coral Reefs, and Why Do They Need Restoration?

Primarily responsible for building coral reefs, the Coral polyps can take many forms. These anemone-like animals can be graceful flowing fans, large reef-building colonies, or small solitary organisms. Thousands of coral species can live in shallow, warm, cold, tropical seas and dark depths of the ocean.

Coral reefs are the sea's rainforests, having one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. An estimated 25% of ocean fish depend on healthy coral reefs for shelter, food, reproduction, and growth. 

Sadly, coral reef ecosystems across the globe are heavily threatened. Some, due to natural phenomena such as predation, storms, and diseases. However, most blatant threats are caused by human activity. 

Pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, sedimentation, climate change, and a drastic rise in ocean temperatures cause ocean acidification.

Most threats stress the coral, which leads to coral bleaching, death, and physical damage. According to the National Marine Sanctuaries, during 2014-2017, unusually warm waters affected 70% of coral reef ecosystems across the globe.

SEE ALSO: Viruses and Bacteria can Infect Corals and Trigger Bleaching

How Researchers Can Help Florida Coral Reef Restorations

At the foot of Florida lies a legendary 255-mile barrier reef that's home to fish, sea turtles, lobsters, and more. Not only does it protect the Florida coastline from storm surges over thousands of years, but they are a vital part of the local ecosystem.

Unfortunately, like many coral reefs worldwide, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is in danger. It has been damaged by disease, bleaching, hurricanes, and grave human use.

New research published in the Journal Coral Reefs UCF researchers has tested how staghorn coral skeletons can withstand forces of nature and human threats.

By subjecting coral skeletons to higher stressors caused by oceanic waves, researchers can determine how much the coral can withstand, comparing depletion levels to human activity stressors.

During experiments, researchers uncovered a unique safety feature in coral skeletons. Its porosity minimizes the effects of an impact.

When the team of UCF engineers placed coral skeleton samples under increasing stress, the pores temporarily relieved the applied load, temporarily stalling further structural failure and cracking.

Simply put, the corrals' pores absorbed some of the mechanical energy applied, thus preventing catastrophic failure.

John Fauth, an associate professor from the University of Central Florida's Department of Biology, explains, "For the first time, we used tools of mechanical engineering to closely examine the skeletons of critically endangered coral raised in a coral nursery."

The data gathered provides baseline values that can be used in the future to judge nursery-reared staghorn skeletons.

Although restoration efforts using nursery-reared coral transplantation are underway, scientists continue to search for tangible methods in increasing success rates.

ALSO READ: Red Coral Effectively Recovers in Mediterranean Protected Areas

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