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Ilsa Kuffner and others of the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center (SPCMSC) are co-authors on a new journal article in Nature Communications Earth and Environment that reports evidence that experimental elkhorn corals transplanted from the northern Florida Keys to Dry Tortugas survived better and grew faster because they were able to eat more zooplankton food.

Three coral colonies in a row across a reef - two bright orange elkhorn and one branching staghorn in the center
The U.S. Geological Survey is conducting research to guide the restoration and recovery of threatened corals in Dry Tortugas National Park and throughout the western Atlantic. Shown here are two colonies of the threatened elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, with a colony of staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis, in the center. These coral colonies were planted by USGS scientists (with permission from the National Park Service) as part of the Coral Assessment Network (USGS-CAN) that provides data on coral-growth, or calcification, rates throughout the Florida Keys. Learn more about USGS Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies.

The USGS conducts science to help guide the stewardship of our Nation’s important natural resources. Coral reefs serve as critical natural infrastructure that protects shorelines and provides habitat for economically important fisheries and tourism. These ecosystems are so greatly impacted by climate change and other stressors that many organizations have begun restoring coral populations through human intervention. Research on how to restore reefs most effectively, such as with what species and where, is a present focus of SPCMSC scientists. Ilsa Kuffner, Anastasios Stathakopoulos, Erin Lyons, and Lucy Bartlett contributed to a study published in the journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment titled “Heterotrophy, microbiome, and location effects on restoration efficacy of the threatened coral Acropora palmata.

A previously published assisted migration experiment performed by USGS from spring 2018 to autumn 2019 showed that elkhorn corals that were planted in Dry Tortugas after being raised in coral farms in the upper Florida Keys survived and grew better than their counterparts brought to other sites throughout Florida’s coral reef. To follow up on this study, collaborators at The Ohio State University (OSU) sampled the corals’ physiology at the USGS field sites to find out the reasons behind the corals’ success. The analyses by OSU and colleagues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham revealed that corals in Dry Tortugas had more lipid stores (“fat”) and higher cholesterol (an indicator for zooplankton feeding) than corals that had been moved to the more northern Florida Keys sites. The researchers hypothesize that zooplankton may be more abundant at times in the Dry Tortugas because of periodic upwellings. These oceanographic phenomena are caused by meandering ocean currents that can bring bursts of nutrient-rich water up to the surface from colder, deeper waters. This new knowledge can be used by resource managers to plan restoration strategies that connect and leverage places where corals may have advantages for growth, survival, and reproduction. While this research was focused in the Florida Keys, the findings could have global implications. The importance of heterotrophy in accelerating the growth and fitness of reef-building corals is useful information for guiding coral reef restoration strategies—not just in the Florida Keys, but around the world.

Read the Ohio State University Press Release.

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