“Since these regions were hotter and more vulnerable to human impacts from the mainland, just the opposite should have happened. The question was why?” says Carne. “Is it the genetics of the coral? Or it is something about the genetics of the algae that lives inside them? If we can understand what makes some of them more resilient, then we can facilitate this adaptation process.” While they work out the answer, Carne’s team has seen remarkable success in using these extra-tough corals to revitalize the reefs.
Some corals can reproduce like grafted plant clippings through budding or fragmentation, when broken fragments regenerate and form new colonies. Carne and her research team collected broken pieces of elkhorn and staghorn corals — critically endangered and nearly 98 percent wiped out — from the healthy reefs and moved them to eight coral nurseries. These were set up at cayes in and near Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a 10,000-acre marine reserve off the coast of southern Belize. They made sure to transplant a genetically diverse crop, and then grow it in its natural environment (as opposed to the artificial setting of a laboratory or an aquarium). Since 2006, they’ve planted more than 8,000 bleach-resistant corals off the coast of southern Belize, creating thriving colonies. Once they figure out what makes these species so hardy, transplanting coral could become routine.
Building a Reef in 5 Steps
1. At the eight coral nurseries located around Belize’s Laughing Bird Caye National Park, staghorn and elkhorn corals are placed on metal, framed tables, which provide a supportive surface for the two species’ artificial growths: cement discs (called cookies) that contain fragments of flowery elkhorn coral, and ropes that are seeded with the spindly staghorn corals.