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This Scientific Breakthrough at the Florida Aquarium Could Save Coral Reefs

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This Scientific Breakthrough at the Florida Aquarium Could Save Coral Reefs

Coral reef in Belize.

XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY / THE OCEAN AGENCY

Hope may be on the horizon for the world's depleted coral reefs thanks to scientists who successfully reproduced endangered corals in a laboratory setting for the first time, according to Reuters.


The majestic beauty of the biodiversity in ocean's coral reefs is under threat from the climate crisis. Viruses and bacteria that are hostile to corals have found the world's warming waters as a nurturing breeding ground. Add to that a spike in marine heat waves and corals around the world are under attack from all sides. They are bleaching and dying at unprecedented rates and the animals that call coral reef home are losing their habitat.

Fortunately, the breakthrough at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa may have broad and beneficial implications for the Florida Reef Tract — the third largest reef in the world, which is right off the coast of the Florida Keys, as CNN reported.

"It's pure excitement to be the first to achieve a breakthrough in the world," said CEO of the Florida Aquarium, Roger Germann to CNN. "Our team of experts cracked the code...that gives hope to coral in the Florida Reef Tract and to coral in the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans."

Project Coral tackled the exceedingly complex task of creating an environment that will mimic the oceanic conditions that will signal corals to reproduce. To get the Atlantic pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) to spawn, the scientists at the aquarium used advanced LED technology to mimic sunrises, sunsets, moon phases, temperature and water quality to create spawning conditions.

"You do one thing wrong and it can throw you off for a year," said Keri O'Neil, Senior Coral Scientist at the Florida Aquarium, according to the aquarium's blog.

The complex and arduous task of tricking corals has paid off in the successful spawn of the pillar coral for three days in a row, according to the independent news site Patch in Tampa.

The successful spawning is encouraging news for scientists who now intend their new technique to breed new coral colonies that will repopulate the decimated Florida reef system.

"This is truly the future of coral restoration in Florida and around the world," said, as Reuters reported. "We'll be able to do this for dozens of species, and it opens up a world of new possibilities."

The Florida Reef Tract has lost more than 90 percent of its staghorn and elkhorn corals due to pollution, disease, climate change and boat damage. However, a renewed urgency to preserve a healthy coral gene pool set in with the discovery of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, a menacing disease that attacks 25 different species of coral and has spread throughout the Florida Reef Tract, according to the aquarium.

The scientists first started working on the staghorn coral five years ago, but then shifted focus to the pillar coral since it is almost extinct after stony coral tissue loss disease attacked it. The corals need the scientists since the remaining male and female clusters are too far apart to reproduce, according to CNN.

"It's quite possible that we just had our last wild spawning of pillar coral this year due to the Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease," said O'Neill, as CNN reported. "But with the success of this project, as a scientist, I now know that every year for the foreseeable future we can spawn Florida pillar corals in the laboratory and continue our work trying to rebuild the populations."

From here, the aquarium plans to build more greenhouses to preserve the ecosystem of the Florida Reef Tract.

"We're going to ramp it up. We aren't going to rest. We want to see a diverse coral reef," said Germann, according to CNN.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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