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Saving Coral Reefs — With Sex

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Saving Coral Reefs — With Sex
Rebecca Albright in the California Academy of Science's darkroom where they are working on coral spawning and restoration efforts. Tara Lohan

By Tara Lohan

Visitors walk slowly through a room of dimmed lights and glowing tanks that bring the mysteries of the sea into plain view. The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is home to 900 different species — everything from brightly colored reef fish to prickly sea urchins, even an albino alligator named Claude.


But some of the most exciting things to see are out of the public's view.

In a specially constructed darkroom in one of the labs, scientists are coaxing corals to spawn and studying how to increase the chances of survivorship for baby corals. It's all part of a larger effort to give threatened reefs — and all the species that depend on them — a fighting chance.

Reefs at Risk

Shallow tropical reefs face a long list of threats including overfishing, disease and pollution, but one of the biggest dangers is climate change, which is contributing to rising sea surface temperatures and increasing ocean acidification. It's estimated that in the past 30 years half the world's coral reefs have died and by the end of the century we could lose 90 percent.

That's bad news for millions of people and marine life.

Coral reefs have important biodiversity and economic values. Reefs are like rainforests, providing food and shelter to thousands of other species. Coral reefs cover just 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, but they host more than 25 percent of the ocean's biodiversity. "So if we lose them, then we lose a disproportionate amount of biodiversity," said Rebecca Albright, a coral reef biologist who co-leads the California Academy of Science's Hope for Reefs initiative that works on researching and restoring coral reefs.

Reefs also provide key ecosystem services, valued at an estimated at $375 billion a year. Coastal communities rely on subsistence and commercial fishing supported by reefs, and their beauty and biodiversity bring in big tourism dollars. Reefs also provide a buffer for shorelines, helping to protect against storms and erosion — increasingly expensive threats with climate change.

Albright spent years studying what was going wrong with reefs. "I've done a lot of work looking at impacts of ocean acidification on reproduction and coral settlement and there's not a lot of good news there," she said.

So she shifted her focus.

"If we're losing corals at an unprecedented rate, then the only way we're going to get them back is if they can reproduce or grow more quickly."

Coral Reproduction

Corals and algae grow in a lab at the California Academy of Sciences.

Tara Lohan

To understand how scientists are hoping to help save corals, you need a quick primer in coral reproduction.

Most corals can reproduce in two ways. There's asexual reproduction — like a starfish, you can break off a piece of coral and the fragment will regenerate. Many conservation efforts have (and continue to) focus on fragmenting corals and then planting them back out onto reefs. These kinds of efforts work well at the hectare scale, said Albright, but they're not effective for ecosystem-wide restoration. At this rate we're a long way from being able to keep pace with the rate of environmental loss.

"You can imagine it's very laborious and time consuming," she said. "And when you look at the fact that we've lost 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, which is 2,300 kilometers long, individual divers going out and physically planting onto the reef is just not scalable."

Corals, however, can also reproduce sexually. Synchronized reproductive events happen in a rather dramatic fashion — usually just once a year for most corals, and for many it's at the end of the summer, after sunset and following a full moon, said Albright. Eggs and sperm are "broadcast" into the water column, where they combine and fertilize to produce larvae that eventually fix themselves to the ocean floor or other hard surfaces where they begin to grow from individual polyps into a colony. It will be a few months before the growing coral is even visible to the naked eye.

Understanding these reproductive processes could help solve another natural problem: Some reefs are currently dominated by a single clone and that low genetic variation can lead to disaster in times of environmental change. It's of special concern now as corals try to adapt to warming waters.

Sexual reproduction is "the only avenue for genetic diversity and so that's the one that we're focused on right now," said Albright.

"So what we're trying to do is just focus on helping corals sexually reproduce, get as much genetic diversity out there as possible and then let nature pick which ones win and which ones lose, because that's how it's supposed to happen," she said.

Spawning in Captivity

At the California Academy of Sciences darkroom, Albright and her team have built a special environment filled with tanks programmed to simulate the seasonal temperature and light changes of the Palau archipelago, home to the staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) they're growing.

This complex process, which took a year and a half to develop, provides a unique opportunity to observe not just the reproduction but what happens to the resulting larvae, helping the researchers to better understand what may help more larvae make it to maturity out on the reef.

In nature, that's not an easy task. Life is tough for a microscopic coral on the ocean floor — there are endless things that could eat or outcompete it. Only about one in a million survive.

"The goal here is just to figure out how to get these corals to produce more offspring that are more viable and then use that knowledge to help field efforts," said Albright. "If we can increase survivorship by 10- or 100-fold, then that would be hugely helpful." This is especially true for reefs that are already depleted.

Rebecca Albright examines baby corals spawned in the lab under a microscope.

Tara Lohan

One of the things her lab will study over the next several years is whether energetic enhancements, like better nutrition, can help corals like they do in early life stage for humans.

"If you could add things that would make the larvae more energetically replete, would that translate into better post-settlement survivorship?" she asks. "We'll be looking at that, along with how different [water] flows may make them grow faster and other ways to enhance their survivorship."

Hope for Corals isn't the only project out there trying to save corals. Other scientific efforts are studying how to get corals to be more robust against stress or to selectively breed "super corals" that are more resistant to heat or other pressures. Albright said she's heartened by this broad array of scientific efforts. "I think the solutions that are being explored by working at the intersection of disciplines like biology, engineering and technology are the most exciting as they have high capacity to help us scale results to meaningful levels," she said. "Most of that work is in early days but is exciting in terms of potential."

But she admits, there's still a long way to go, much to learn and no magic bullet for reefs.

Also, the clock is ticking.

"We're losing things so quickly right now, most conversations are switching towards talking about saving certain things and where we focus our efforts — because we can't save everything," she said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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