The secret superpower of delicate coral reefs

Coral reefs are a vital part of marine ecosystems, but they can be damaged by everything from storms and careless divers to massive natural disasters. But they also have a superpower: An entire reef can grow from one coral chunk.

Coral reefs are some of the most important and most fragile kinds of marine habitats, and figure out the best way to repair damage done to coral reefs is crucial to aquatic conservation efforts. Dr. Graham Forrester of the University of Rhode Island recently spent time in the British Virgin Islands, working with a team of fellow researchers, students, and local enthusiasts to restore a dead patch of coral to its former glory.

As Dr. Forrester explains, the importance of their work was not just in bringing the coral back, but in carefully recording how they did it:

"Often coral restoration projects are not designed as scientific studies or monitored, so nobody can answer the questions 'how well did it work?' or 'what's the best way to go about this?' The scientific community is providing the answers to these questions, and we wanted to contribute by emphasizing methods that are simple and cheap enough to be used by volunteers with little training."

What the team found is that transplanting coral - moving coral fragments to a new restoration site - was hugely effective in rebuilding reefs. The transplants reattached themselves in just a few months, and they were large adult coral within just four years.

Forrester explains how this all works:

"To use a gardening analogy, the sourced coral is like an orchard of fruit trees. Storms knocked some twigs off the trees and we replanted them on barren ground. The twigs grow and blossom to form a new orchard. It's the same process."

Perhaps the most exciting part of this new research is how cheap and easy it is to do. With minimal training, amateur divers could help reattach coral, giving aquatic tourists a real opportunity to repair ecosystems instead of damage them. As Dr. Forrester notes:

"Coral reefs face several threats, some of which are far removed and global in scale. The coral transplantation methods we tested provide a simple, relatively low-cost way for people to improve the quality of their local environment and enhance reefs where natural recovery is slow."

Indeed, considering we are still right in the middle of one of the worst natural disasters in maritime history, any news about how to put damaged aquatic ecosystems back together has to be considered very, very good news.

[Restoration Ecology]