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Spawn of a new era as Reef's first Coral IVF babies reach maturity


Sharlene King
13 December 2021

The first Coral IVF babies on the Great Barrier Reef have produced the next generation as part of this year’s mass coral spawning event, becoming the Reef's first breeding population using the innovative process pioneered by a Southern Cross University coral specialist.

Researchers found 22 large coral colonies born through the first Coral IVF trial on the Reef at Heron Island in 2016 have survived a bleaching event, grown to maturity and were filled with eggs and sperm ready to spawn after the recent full moon. Many of the other smaller colonies are not quite large enough to reproduce but should be breeding next year.

DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: In 2016 we began this Coral IVF process for the first time on the Great Barrier Reef in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef at Heron Island. What's really exciting is that we've monitored the outcomes of that experiment for five years and we now know that the larger colonies that we created by settling larvae directly on the reef are dinner plate size and are sexually reproductive.

So we've closed the lifecycle and established a new breeding population on an area of the Reef that had very few live corals present and it's really thrilling now to see the outcomes of that because we know that this approach can restore breeding populations quite quickly on damaged parts of the Reef.

Southern Cross University Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison, lead researcher and Coral IVF pioneer, said: “Coral IVF is the first project of its kind to re-establish coral on damaged reefs by collecting millions of coral eggs and sperm during the spawning season, growing them into baby corals and releasing them directly onto degraded areas of the Reef.

“The ultimate aim of this process is to produce new breeding populations of corals in areas of the Reef that no longer have enough live corals present due to being damaged by the effects of climate change.

“This is a thrilling result to see these colonies we settled during the first small-scale pilot study on Heron Island grow over five years and become sexually reproductive," said Professor Harrison.

“The larvae generated from these spawning corals have dispersed within the Heron Island lagoon and may settle on patches of reef nearby, helping to further restore other reef patches that have been impacted by climate change.

“This has given me and the rest of the team renewed enthusiasm as we research additional techniques on Lizard Island, through the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program in collaboration with CSIRO, QUT and with support from Australian Institute of Marine Science, that will enable us to scale up and optimise this technique,” he said.

Acropora spathulata branching coral with mature pink eggs and sperm packets

Ready to spawn: one of the mature Acropora spathulata branching corals. Note the pink eggs and sperm packets set for release during mass spawning (credit Christina Langley).

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden said: “We couldn’t be more excited to see that these coral babies have grown from microscopic larvae to the size of dinner plates, having not only survived a bleaching event but are now reproducing themselves – helping to produce larvae that can restore a degraded reef.

“Our Reef is an irreplaceable ecosystem that is home to many thousands of marine species, but it’s under threat from climate change. We need to reduce emissions as well as pioneer new solutions to help reefs recover and adapt to the warmer temperatures we’re already locked into.

“After seeing the potential of this game-changing technique, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and its partners brought Coral IVF to the Reef back in 2016 bringing together people and science to give nature a helping hand.

“Saving the Reef is a huge task, but having proof that this innovative, cutting-edge science works gives us hope,” said Ms Marsden.

Scuba divers swimming in coral reef, with front diver holding a camera

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison at the Coral IVF trial site in the Heron Island lagoon in 2020.

The Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) is the world’s largest and most ambitious effort to develop, test and deploy at-scale protection, restoration and adaptation interventions to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs globally can resist, adapt to, and recover from the impacts of climate change.

RRAP is funded by the partnership between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and is delivered by a collaboration between Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, CSIRO, The University of Queensland, QUT, Southern Cross University and James Cook University.

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Media contact: Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University, 0429 661 349 or [email protected]