Scientists Battle Mysterious Pathogen Destroying Coral Reefs Off Florida Coast
By Robynne Boyd
Off the coast of Broward County in southeast Florida, a 330-year-old coral colony has withered in the water thanks to a mysterious pathogen. At the height of its health, this slow-growing variety of coral, known as mountainous star, looked like a car-size brown mushroom cap scored by ridges and valleys and colored with splashes of fluorescent green. Today the countless minuscule sea-anemone-like polyps that form the colony have turned white and died, laying bare the skeletal structure below.
A centuries-old mountainous star coral colonyFlower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary / NOAA / Schmahl
Corals all along Florida's southeastern shore are succumbing to the same disease. In fact, more than half of the state's Coral Reef Tract—an area 175 miles long and covering more than 100,000 acres—has been infected. It's a rapid change in circumstance that has experts concerned and scrambling for answers and solutions.
"This is unprecedented," said Karen Bohnsack, reef resilience coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Coral Reef Conservation Program. Never before has this number of coral species in an area of this size begun dying off this quickly, she said. "Unfortunately, as far as what it is that's causing it, the only answer I can give is that we don't know."
There are in fact many unknowns in this unfolding coral murder mystery. Scientists have coined the generic term "white syndrome" to describe the unidentified virus or bacteria because of the white bands or uneven white blotches that engulf the coral. The disease has touched at least 21 of the approximately 25 species of stony, or hard, corals that help make up the Florida reefs. The most common of these, including staghorn, acorn, mountain star, cavernous and knobby brain corals, have all been dealt a hefty blow.
"If corals contract this white syndrome, in most cases the coral colony will die, and that's what's most concerning," said Bohnsack. "We have seen an almost 100 percent mortality in this disease event."
The first signs of white syndrome appeared in 2015 off Key Biscayne, a barrier island south of Miami. It appeared in tandem with the longest, most widespread, and most damaging global bleaching event on record, which stretched from 2014 to 2017. Coral bleaching and white disease are two separate events. Bleaching occurs when coral polyps release their colorful, symbiotic algae due to the excessive stress of warming water. Coral disease can occur with or without high heat stress.
"The reefs suffered severe bleaching in those years, and each event caused major outbreaks of coral disease in 2015 and 2016," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch Program. "Unfortunately, the diseases are appearing much faster than scientists can identify them," Eakin added.
Coral bleaching in the MaldivesThe Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey, 2016
In the 1980s, coral diseases were restricted to a few warm-water areas such as the Caribbean. Now outbreaks occur almost every year and can be found in most of the world's coral reef habitats, whether in remote ocean landscapes or near dense human populations, such as off the Florida coast.
The same goes for heat stress. The warm water that causes bleaching is now both hotter and more common than before, said Eakin. Coral reefs now bleach about four times more often than they did in the early 1980s, according to a recent article in Science.
Unfortunately, Florida's white syndrome has not slowed in pace even though the most recent global bleaching event has ended and the waters have cooled. The disease is creeping southward, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Most difficult to understand is whether the heat made the pathogen stronger, enabling it to thrive where it wouldn't otherwise, or weakened the coral, making the reefs more susceptible to disease.
"We're not managing our resources properly, and that's driving global change," said David Gilliam, assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. "It's like there's a base level of stress the reefs experience, then periodic moments of stress that drive the bleaching. Then we have all these people, runoff, and other nasty things that are further stressing our system. I think it is naive to think these aren't anthropogenic declines."
Last year, monitoring efforts by Gilliam's team found a 35 percent loss of stony corals off the south Florida coast, he said. One species, the pillar coral, is on the verge of local extinction; only one of 65 known pillar corals remains alive.
Dave Vaughan of Mote Marine Laboratory plants coral in Key West.Mote Marine Laboratory / Conor Goulding
Even so, oceanic experts say all hope is not lost. The state of Florida allocated $1 million for coral disease monitoring and response for 2017–2018. Scientists are also finding novel ways to grow and replant the reefs. Dave Vaughan, executive director of the Mote Marine Laboratory's International Center for Coral Reef Research in Summerland Key, Florida, is breeding local corals to be more resilient to bleaching, warming and disease.
Using a process called microfragmentation, he slices a golf ball–size mountain star coral into hundreds of fragments, and those tiny pieces regrow with impressive vigor. A coral that normally takes three years to grow to the size of a golf ball can now take about three months. When planted close together, the fast-growing corals fuse to form a larger colony.
"We can now bring back half a century of coral in a couple of years," said Vaughan, who planted tens of thousands of corals last year. His goal is to plant a million before he retires in the next decade or so.
The importance of coral reefs cannot be overstated. The Florida Reef Tract provides $6 billion in income each year from tourism, fishing and other business, according to the DEP. Like the 330-year-old mountainous star coral mentioned above, the ancient systems that form this tract are biodiversity hot spots for a wondrous array of marine creatures and also provide essential coastal protection. It's all part of the Sunshine State's allure.
"There's still so much out there to save," said Bohnsack of the future of Florida's reefs. "There are survivors even in some of the most susceptible species. I still have hope."
It’s Time to Raise the Reefs https://t.co/510CHcGaJ1 @Oceanwire @Seasaver @OceanLeadership— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1517094909.0
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.