FLORIDA (July 10, 2015) Georgia Aquarium staff recently reached another milestone on conservation and research efforts to increase populations of staghorn and elkhorn coral, two of the most endangered species of coral, in the Florida Keys.

Two Aquarium staff members, Georgia Aquarium biologist, Steve Hartter, and dive operations team member, Brittany Connor, traveled to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary June 15-20 to conduct coral reef research in collaboration with Florida Aquarium and the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF). Long-time partners from CRF, restoration project manager, Jessica Levy, and nursery program manager, Kayla Ripple, along with two members of Florida Aquarium, director of husbandry, Mike Terrell, and dive operations member, Ingrid Brustad, also joined Hartter and Connor on the trip.

The Aquarium team members led the week at the Aquarium’s underwater nursery at Molasses Reef and Pickles Reef conducting surveys, photographing and mapping coral colonies at the site. While the focus of previous trips was planting corals from the aquaculture nursery onto the reef, moving materials onto the site and assisting with maintenance, this trip was the first where baseline data such as location, position and genome of coral was collected for research.

“We want to map our site to know exactly where those corals are, so in the future we can start to research and quantify growth rates on those particular corals,” said Kimberly Stone, associate curator of fish and invertebrates at Georgia Aquarium. “A minimum of 20 corals were mapped at each site for research purposes and in order to have a good quantitative subset group of animals to work with.”

There are many species of corals listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, and more are being added every year. Corals are members of the most diverse ecosystems in the oceans, making them critically important for several reasons.

“People use coral reefs for many different reasons, such as tourism and recreation, but they also serve a greater purpose,” said Stone. 

Hard, reef building corals, such as staghorn and elkhorn corals, are the foundation to a coral reef and provide structure and a habitat for animals for shelter and protection, as well as serve as protection for island and coastal shorelines.  

Georgia Aquarium has been working in collaboration with the CRF since 2010 in the Upper Florida Keys to help restore staghorn and elkhorn corals, the two most endangered species of coral, using ocean-based aquaculture nurseries and transplantation methods. With Florida Aquarium now part of this crucial project, Georgia Aquarium researchers have a direct on-site contact to report on the progress of the coral, and a fantastic team of marine scientist partners at the University of Florida. This particular research trip was funded by a grant Georgia Aquarium received from The UPS Foundation and is one of four site visits that will be conducted throughout the year.

To learn more about coral and its importance, guests can visit Georgia Aquarium’s Tropical Diver Presented by Southwest exhibit or Georgia Aquarium’s Animal Guide online. For additional updates on Georgia Aquarium’s research and conservation efforts with coral reefs, visit www.georgiaaquariumblog.com

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ABOUT GEORGIA AQUARIUM

Georgia Aquarium, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that encompasses Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and Marineland Dolphin Adventure and Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station in Marineland, Fla.  The mission of Georgia Aquarium, Inc. is to be an entertaining, educational and scientific organization featuring exhibits and programs of the highest standards, and offering engaging and exciting guest experiences that promote the conservation of aquatic biodiversity throughout the world. For additional information, visit www.georgiaaquarium.org or www.marineland.net