Beyond the Banks: Riverbanks Zoo partners to help save corals in crisis along Florida reef

Published: Jul. 30, 2019 at 6:32 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Right now, thousands of coral along the Florida Reef Tract are dying because of a disease scientists are desperate to understand.

While they work to figure out a cause, Riverbanks Zoo is one of several organizations partnering in the effort to rescue the affected species.

The disease is called the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and it was first seen off the coast of Miami-Dade County in the fall of 2014. Since then, it has spread rapidly up and down Florida’s coast more than 96,000 acres and has now affected half of the hard coral species, also known as the reef-building coral species, along the reef.

“We don't really have any more answers here five years in,” said Jennifer Rawlings, Riverbanks Zoo’s aquarium curator. “They are still trying to work out what the disease is, if it's even bacterial or viral, and then how it moves from one place to the other.”

But researchers said what is clear, once healthy coral are affected and begin to lose living tissue, a colony will die sometimes within a matter of weeks.

“The amount of death that it is causing on the reef is unprecedented,” said Rawlings. “There are 25 target species that are part of the rescue program -- those that are the highly susceptible ones to the disease.”

Since scientists don’t know how to stop it, they are working to get ahead of it. Riverbanks Zoo is one of 10 organizations now serving as a home to healthy coral that have been rescued from the reef.

“This disease process could very well eliminate some of the species from the wild, so us having them here is really preserving them for future restoration efforts for genetic work potentially-- so it's really quite an effort,” added Rawlings.

It’s also a first for Riverbanks Zoo. Keepers said the corals you see on exhibit have come from the Indian and Pacific oceans, so keepers have had to learn how to care for these species from the Atlantic. That includes target feeding them with a pipette to make sure they get the nutrients they need.

“They have these feeding tentacles that will come out and, basically, they're like a big mouth with tentacles,” said Rawlings, “and the tentacles capture food as it goes by and drag it right into their mouth and use it for energy.”

It’s energy to serve a great purpose from providing a habitat for fish and turtles to providing a barrier from storms.

“Hurricanes are quite a big deal in Florida so having the reef there actually prevents some of that storm damage, so we need the reef there for multiple reasons,” added Rawlings.

Riverbanks Zoo is currently hosting 36 coral colonies. Rawlings said to date scientists have rescued 1,500 coral and spread them out among the partner organizations, but their goal is to rescue 5,000 to ensure genetic diversity. She adds they’ll need several more organizations to come on board and house the species to make that possible.

In the meantime, Riverbanks is also currently in the running for a grant funding project that would allow them to put more funds toward the Florida Reef Tract project. If they win, the zoo could receive $25,000. To learn more or cast a vote, visit this link.

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