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Reestablishing a stepping-stone population of the threatened elkhorn coral Acropora palmata to aid regional recovery

December 17, 2020

Recovery of the elkhorn coral Acropora palmata is critical to reversing coral reef ecosystem collapse in the western Atlantic, but the species is severely threatened. To gauge potential for the species’ restoration in Florida, USA, we conducted an assisted migration experiment where 50 coral fragments of 5 nursery-raised genetic strains (genets) from the upper Florida Keys were moved to 5 sites across 350 km of the offshore reef. Additionally, 4 fragments from the 1 remaining colony of A. palmata in Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) were added to the 2 DRTO experimental sites to test for local adaptation. To measure coral performance, we tracked coral survival, calcification, growth, and condition from May 2018 to October 2019. All 24 corals relocated to the DRTO sites survived and calcified ~85% faster than the fewer surviving corals transplanted to the 2 upper Keys sites. While coral survival across the entire experiment did not depend on genet, there was a weak but statistically significant genetic effect on calcification rate among the corals relocated to DRTO. The DRTO native genet was among the fastest growing genets, but it was not the fastest, suggesting a lack of local adaptation at this scale. Our results indicate that DRTO, a remote reef system inhabited by the species during the Holocene and located at the nexus of major ocean currents, may be a prime location for reestablishing A. palmata. Assisted migration of A. palmata to DRTO could restore a sexually reproducing population in <10 yr, thereby promoting the species’ regional recovery.