Surprise! Coral is starting to spawn and produce hybrid species, study finds

The Great Barrier Reef – one of the world’s greatest marine specimens – is spawning its unique breeding and energy-producing corals, according to scientists.

The dead and dying coral reefs are visible from space; you can even spot some of them from space, too.

To check for live coral, that’s where you turn to the new geological analogues and new science, like coral’s spawn and new coral forms emerging.

The scientists at the Coral Triangle Cetacean Research Program have been collecting data on corals spawning, thanks to the remote-controlled underwater robots, and this week they released the results of a survey of reefs in the Gordon and Betty Moore Coral Reef Marine Park, which covers 1.7 million square kilometers along Australia’s east coast.

The coral spawns have been unprecedented for the area in the last 15 years, according to the findings. But where researchers expected dozens or hundreds of nests, they saw thousands of hybrid specimens appearing in over 200 locations.

Some of those embryos “are actually getting embryos placed on females,” according to the lead author of the study, Shane Ross.

“With how many organisms are out there, it’s becoming pretty clear that we need to deal with extinction of corals more comprehensively than in the past, because they are the foundation of all life,” said Ross, who is the professor of marine sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The study is co-authored by Ross’ wife, Jan Nash, a biologist at Griffith University.

They sent the collected corals to Melbourne University Professor Jon Brodie, who in 2008 reported in the journal Science of the Total Environment that the Great Barrier Reef spawns at least 80,000 corals per hectare.

The Great Barrier Reef’s spawning could be pushing other nearby reefs to the brink of extinction.

So that’s when Ross and his colleagues turned to the remote-controlled submarines that fly out from their harbor off the coast of Townsville to take samples and retrace their steps through the reef.

The impact of artificial reproduction on coral reefs is a new area of research.

The new coral remains in the reefs for at least four years, until their own offspring emerges, Ross said. The experiments show that the hybrid corals are not exclusively females.

“One of the predictions was that they would just produce female offspring, and they didn’t,” Ross said. “They are actually repopulating with male organisms.”

The researchers’ conclusions about the effect of artificial reproduction on the ecosystem is based in part on the discovery that a few synthetic females with synthetic eggs were very successful at getting hatched on the coral reefs.

“The models say they will go on for quite a while,” Ross said.

That raises worries for the conservation of another coral from the depths: Blacktip reef sharks. Those crustaceans are more susceptible to human harvesting due to their tiny size and the fact that many reefs are lacking coral.

Such populations may be waning, and the hybrid coral “may go out of the reef and disappear forever,” he said.

“We know for sure they are on the increase and growing, so we can’t take that for granted,” Ross said.

“Our real concern now is not having an effective mechanism to monitor the future development of these hybrids … and eventually for them to disappear,” he said.

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