95% of the stony coral in the oceans will be gone within less than 50 years unless we act now. That stark prediction, by Mary Hagedorn of the Smithsonian Institution of Marine Science, would not only mean the loss of some 800 species of this ancient organism and the exquisitely beautiful reefs, but also the loss of fish breeding grounds (and thus our food supply), coastline protection, a link in the ecosystem that produces half the world’s oxygen, and much more.
Mary Hagedorn was talking at the Wellcome Collection as part of their joint series with BBC World Service“Exchanges at the Frontier“, and her predictions for coral echoed a report on loss other sea life in Science (16 Jan 2015; abstract) which I could summarise as ‘things are bad, but we can take actions that can make a huge difference’.
Another day, another gloomy prediction of ecological disaster? One difference here was that Mary has set out on a personal mission to save the coral. “Biodiversity is crucial to our survival on the planet, and we have to start saving it now – this would be our gift to the future.” So she’s been adapting technologies used for IVF in humans and other mammals, and is currently working to collect and freeze sperm from as many coral species as possible. And where to store the frozen sperm?: she wondered if space might be a possible option, as a brief problem in liquid nitrogen storage could lose everything in a few minutes.
Collecting the sperm is not easy – at the moment, it’s 11 species down, 789 to go. This is partly the challenge of working underwater, entailing either collecting nets that interviewer Claudia Hammond described as ‘huge condoms’, or bringing fragments into tanks and hovering over them with pipette in hand. Then there is knowing when a particular coral will spawn: for many species, the release of the eggs and sperm takes place only for a day or two every year. “How accurately can you predict when a species will start release?”, she was asked. “To the minute!”, she replied. “So in a particular location, all the coral of one species might all begin on the dot of 9 o’clock, the second week after a full moon – quite remarkable for such a simple organism.”
Ocean temperatures are rising, and the acidity of the water is increasing. Corals are in fact symbiotic animals, and their colour comes from algae living in the coral and providing energy. And each species of algae has its own tolerance for temperature and pH, and if it’s not right, they just leave home! This leads to ‘bleaching’ the coral, which starts off stressed, and may eventually die.
Most of her funding comes from private donations – it appears it’s a rather low priority for the US government research budget. I don’t know the figures, but I reflected , in a week when the European Central Bank had announced a €1 trillion injection of funds, how bizarre our priorities are, that we leave such a fundamentally important project to philanthropists.
What I took away from this entertaining discussion was how interesting these organisms are, how important they are for humanity, how much difference some rather conceptually straightforward research and data collection could make, and how we can all play a part. “Tell people to go and learn more about coral – in aquaria or in the sea”, she advised, “the more people who see and love them, the more possibility that they will be conserved. Its all about the power of one – for people to start to take personal responsibility health and future of our ecosystems, and do something – and it doesn’t have to be with coral.”
The programme will be broadcast on Saturday 31st January 2015 at 19.05 GMT on BBC World Service, and available as a podcast.
New related reports and events:
Natural History Museum new exhibition: Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea 27 March – 13 September 2015
Research programmes and international bodies
Useful link pages
Images: Top: Lady Elliot Reef by Rebecca Spindler provided by Mary Hagedorn (cropped); Mary Hagedorn by Neil Stoker; Lionfish on the Reef by Coby Bidwell