June 06, 2024

What do 25% percent of marine species have in common? They’re supported by coral reefs. Though coral may look like rocks, they’re animals.


Peter Gros and Mitch Carl are talking while standing in the coral lab at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. There is a shallow tank of water behind them that has coral in it and there are a lot of pipes and tanks around them.


Florida coral reef conservation

Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but are vital to many marine species. Reefs around the world are declining due to environmental factors, such as stony coral tissue loss disease and changing climates. To help save the coral, accredited organizations are acting fast.

“Just to see the shift in the ocean in a short time frame is pretty startling,” Mitch Carl, curator of aquatics at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium said. “When you talk to people who have been diving in the Florida Keys and talk about how utterly amazing it was, I hope we can get back to that point.”

A coral breeding tank at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. There are a lot of pipes in and around the tank and the place is illuminated by a blue light.


Restoring coral in the Midwest

Carl and aquarist Lindsey Condray are part of the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium’s team on the Florida Tract Rescue Project, a collaboration among 20 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facilities.

Since 2019, nearly 2,000 corals have been placed at zoos across 14 states for the project. In the last three decades, Florida’s waters have lost more than 90% of coral in certain areas. Without human intervention, these fragile ecosystems would be headed toward extinction.

The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium holds 100 colonies of coral and plans to almost double these colonies. The zoo’s team holds coral to act as future breeding stock and meets weekly with other program locations to share coral care tips. The team also studies coral medicine and develops diagnostic tools to expand a knowledge base of medications used to support corals.

“Not only do I get to keep these animals in captivity and show the public how beautiful they are and what they look like, but with this project I can actually say, ‘Hey, we’re helping out, we’re taking these animals, giving them a home for now and repopulating the reefs,’” Carl said.


two divers looking for coral in florida keys


Stony coral tissue loss disease

But before corals can be repopulated in reefs, scientists must better understand stony coral tissue loss disease. This disease was first identified near Miami in 2014 and has spread to affect nearly all of Florida’s coral reefs. Some species of coral in the affected area have survived while other species have experienced full mortality. Scientists are still researching the disease to greater understand how some coral can resist it.

Stony coral tissue loss disease attacks zooxanthellae, tiny plant cells that live in coral and allow coral to get food from sunlight. The disease is transmitted in the water, but scientists are unsure if the coral tissue irritation is caused by a virus or bacteria.

The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium team took corals ahead of the stony coral tissue loss disease front to spawn coral babies and later bring a new generation of corals back to the ocean.

When the coral babies are ready to go back to the ocean, Carl hopes they can “grow up in a nice, disease-free area.”

Peter Gros with a woman being filmed as they check out a coral spawning tank at the Florida Coral Rescue Center. The cameraman is standing in the left foreground with a large camera resting on his shoulder.


Creating a coral gene bank

Meanwhile near the coral’s native habitat, staff at Orlando’s Florida Coral Rescue Center are also using rescued coral for restoration. This included being ahead of stony coral tissue loss disease by collecting healthy coral from 2019-2020. By rescuing this coral, researchers preserve genetic diversity and breed the coral for future restoration of the reef.

The facility holds 700 individual corals made up of 18 species. Staff control the light, water flow, pH balance and temperature of all tanks. Lights are set to mimic conditions in the Florida Keys. Staff also keep a close eye on calcium and alkalinity elements in the water as coral use these elements to create their skeleton.

Unlike other animal rescues that focus on one species, coral rescue is the first attempt to rescue an entire ecosystem. Coral reefs are home to and support many species of fish, crabs, urchins, algae and many other sea creatures. Florida Coral Rescue Center’s goal is to create a gene bank, so ultimately these coral offspring will return to the reef.

Coral tanks at the Florida Coral Rescue Center. There are various sizes of coral on boards under shallow water that are being spawned in this lab. There is a lot of blue light illuminating the tanks.


Florida coral spawning

The Florida Aquarium Coral Conservation Program in Apollo Beach is making great strides for coral. This program successfully spawned 14 species of coral while in human care. There, staff controls the coral’s light to replicate moon cycles and adapts the water temperature and flow to mimic what coral experience in the wild.

Some of these corals are brooders in the wild, producing larvae (coral babies) that emerge from their parents and settle on a nearby reef. Other spawning varieties send their eggs out into the ocean, sometimes traveling miles for fertilization. The conservation program replicates this process by releasing larvae into a tank and allowing them to settle on tiles where they will attach and grow.


A diver checking out a coral nursery under water in the ocean. There are pieces of coral tied to PVC pipes.


Wild coral in Florida

But not all coral restoration is done in a lab. In the Florida Keys, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium staff frequently monitor a coral nursey with 250 coral “trees,” PVC pipes onto which the staff attaches and grows coral. In the nursery there are approximately 1,500 corals, mostly staghorn and some elkhorn varieties. This coral will naturally break and recreate on its own.

Coral is also fragmented on shore using a jeweler’s saw. Mote staff attach this fragmented coral to tiles and later outplant them to the underwater nursery.

In the wild, nearby Looe Key coral reef is down to 1%-2% coral coverage. This means the coral can no longer recover on its own and requires human intervention.


A man and a woman at the Florida Coral Rescue Center are looking at solutions that are used to help with coral spawning. They're standing in a coral spawning center with lots of blue and purple lights behind them.


A hopeful future for Florida coral

Coral lives in codependent communities, so when one species is removed, many others are affected. Coral loss is devastating to the ecosystem because a coral reef serves so many purposes. Not only does it support marine life, but it also breaks up large ocean swells, preventing onshore flooding. Without this natural barrier, coastal and noncoastal residents are affected with rising flood insurance costs. Finally, coral has a large financial impact on tourism being an $8.5 billion industry and supporting 1.5 million jobs directly or indirectly.

But there’s hope. An unprecedented number of scientists from many organizations across the U.S. and the Caribbean are collaborating to research and save coral. Traditional research is instigated in silos and information only comes together when scientists are ready to publish results. But coral researchers are in constant contact, as time is of the essence to save coral. Scientists are advancing research and coral care faster than ever before and are continuing to grow by developing the next generation of coral scientists.


Two divers swim check out some coral on the ocean floor. They're wearing all black gear.


How to help coral

  • Even if you live far away from a coral reef, small changes in your everyday life can help coral reefs.
  • Remember, anything that goes into a stream or creek will eventually find its way to the ocean, so avoid littering.
  • Pick up dog waste. Nitrates from dog waste seep into ground water and higher levels of nitrates lead to red tides, a harmful algae bloom.
  • Reduce plastic waste. Researchers notice that coral consume microplastics in the water.
  • Use reef friendly sunscreen. Look for brands that don’t include harmful chemicals, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene.
  • Read beach safety tips to help protect animals and yourself.


Coral isn’t the only marine species benefitting from wildlife conservation. Watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild Episodes, “Sea Creatures of the Florida Coast,” and “The Forest Beneath the Sea,” to learn how conservationists are protecting sea turtles, manatees purple sea urchins and sunflower sea stars.

Related posts

Kids feeding goat as parents look on with amusement Kids feeding goat as parents look on with amusement

Inspiring Protection for Generations Then and Now

You watched Wild Kingdom protect the animal kingdom for generations to come. Help protect your kingdom with solutions from Mutual of Omaha.