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The experimental killing of deep water "super coral reefs" could lead to their survival

Scientists are working to save deep water coral reef

As ocean lovers, we at Gallery Drinkware are always drawn to articles about the survival of the marine ecosystem. So when I stumbled upon a New York Times article about the fate of deep water "super coral," of course I wanted to explore this topic further.

In a lab, or rather what's called a "cold room," at Temple University in Philadelphia, some very critical experimentation is going on with deep water "super coral:" healthy segments of coral reef (which are living things unto themselves), taken from their natural habitat deep in the ocean, are going to be exposed to various toxic elements in order to see whether they survive.

The goal of this experimentation is to see just how much this super coral can withstand, given the fact that over the past thirty-plus years humans have killed almost half of the shallow-water coral on the planet via climate change, overfishing, pollution, and disasters such as oil spills. And the results of the experiments will hopefully help scientists assist in the reefs' future survival.

Deep water coral reef

We know these factors, from climate change to pollution, are devastating to shallow water coral. A lot less is known about how the various factors effect deep water super coral, which are also known as cold-water coral. Extremely slow-growing, these deep water coral make up two-thirds of all coral species and are the homes of all sorts of amazing marine life, from octopi to sharks, a whole variety of fish, crabs, and brittle stars. Survival of deep water coral, like shallow water coral, is vital to the survival of the marine ecosystem as a whole.

The particular species of deep water coral the scientists are studying at Temple is called Lophelia pertusa. The head deep-sea ecologist at the lab, Dr. Erik Cordes, says that Lophelia has been found to withstand environmental factors and stressors more resiliently than other types of coral and that they may be able to actually adapt to adverse conditions over time.

But in order to see exactly what Lophelia can withstand, the scientists at the lab are going to put the coral under some major stress.

After the most disastrous oil spill in history, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, hundreds of millions of gallons of oil and gas poured from the oil well into the ocean, 5% of which ended up on the ocean floor (the home of the deep water coral). With the intention of breaking down the oil faster, a chemical dispersant was injected just above the wellhead and while it did break down the oil, devastatingly, it also made it more toxic.

Coastal and marine ecosystems, including deep water coral, were decimated.

Since 2010, scientists have been particularly concerned about how deep water coral responds to climate change and disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion. And so, in order to find out how coral like Lophelia respond to these types of factors, the Temple U scientists are exposing the fragments of coral to various stressors, from changes in temperature, pH levels, oil, and a chemical dispersant. 

After 24 hours of lab-facilitated exposure to these factors, the scientists analyze the corals' reactions to each of the different exposures in their various tanks and afterwards, put the coral back into healthy tanks to see if they can recover.

The most interesting result was in the chemical dispersant tank. Lophelia didn't fare very well at all. Like a sick human, the coral made excess mucus and even literally spit out its guts (or filaments). Regardless of the temperature of the water, the dispersant made Lophelia extremely ill.

In the only good news of the day, back in clean water in regular temperatures, the Lophelia recovered from the dispersant fairly quickly. However, in elevated temperatures, the coral continued to suffer or even got worse. The frightening conclusion? Climate change is going to be the biggest factor in the demise of deep water coral.

The scientists in the lab are using this information to ultimately try to restore the coral by using their "assisted evolution" technology to develop coral that can withstand increasing temperatures. The best way to do this is by finding the strongest fragments of coral on the ocean floor, extracting them from the reef, and breeding them. But coral like Lophelia takes "forever" to grow and the concern is that it won't grow fast enough or adapt well to new habitats. It's a risky endeavor...but there's no question it's worth trying. After all, the temperature of the ocean water is rising every year. Our coral reefs are in imminent danger.

Bravo to the scientists doing this all-important work. For the rest of us, my takeaway is this: the most important thing we can all do as ocean lovers is draw attention to these magical beings at the bottom of the sea whose very survival is profoundly threatened at this moment in time. We can all do our part by reducing our use of plastic, driving less, keeping the environment in mind with all of our daily choices, and continuing to love the world's oceans. The ocean ecosystem is counting on us for their very survival.





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