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Florida Aquarium's latest discovery may help save the continental United States' only coral barrier reef from extinction

The Florida Aquarium celebrated Earth Day this year by announcing a history-making accomplishment that could help save the United States' only living coral barrier reef from extinction. For the first time, scientists at the aquarium's Center for Conservation reproduced ridged cactus coral in human care.

According to a press release, researchers made the breakthrough "over several nights" earlier this month. This is also the first time ridged cactus coral larvae have ever been photographed, measured or had their larval release time recorded. The researchers said the ridged cactus coral larvae were the largest they had ever seen.

The aquarium posted about the history-making discovery on Twitter. The video shows the formation and release of ridged cactus coral larvae, which researchers will raise "until they can be returned to the reef." 

Ridged cactus coral is a vital part of the ocean environment referred to as "America's great barrier reef." According to the aquarium, the brightly colored ridged cactus corals, or Mycetophyllia lamarckiana, are brooding coral, which means it releases coral sperm into the water while the eggs stay inside a parent coral and remain there for fertilization and development.

Debborah Luke, senior vice president of conservation at the aquarium, said they intend to use their research to "increase the genetic diversity of coral offspring, maximize coral reproduction rates and advance coral health." 

The research is part of the aquarium's "Project Coral" initiative, which was launched in August to help coral reproduce and restore natural reef systems, namely the one off the coast of Florida. 

Commonly known as America's great barrier reef, the Florida Reef tract is the only coral reef system in the continental United States. The country's roughly 10,000-year-old reef runs along the Florida Keys and is approximately 360 linear miles long. Much of the coral in the system has been lost due to pollution, disease, climate change and boat damage. 

In the past few decades, more than half of the planet's coral reefs have disappeared as a result of climate change, pollution and overfishing. Research shows all of the Earth's coral reef habitats could go extinct by the end of the century. 

Keri O'Neil, senior coral scientists at the aquarium, said the advances her team has made have given the researchers hope that "the round-the-clock work" they do will help prevent coral from going extinct. 

O'Neil says they have been able to use their lab to sexually reproduce eight species of coral that have been impacted by Stony Coral Tissue Loss, a bacterial disease that kills significant numbers of coral.

Roger Germann, president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium, said the historic breakthrough "provides additional hope for the future of all coral reefs in our backyard and around the globe."

"...not even a global pandemic can slow us down when it comes to protecting and restoring America's 'great' barrier reef," he said. 

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