Sporting a long beard and wide-brimmed hat, David Vaughan looks like a tropical version of John Muir. Instead of a mountaineering spiritualist, though, he is the director of the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, Florida. He is also decidedly more pragmatic than the famed naturalist. He is among a growing number of marine biologists working on novel approaches to coral conservation.
The oceans are changing, and the future looks grim for coral and the ecosystems they underpin. But biologists and conservationists are furiously at work to ensure coral survive in the oceans, not just the history books. On the reef and in the lab scientists are discovering novel ways to prepare coral for the heat and acidity the ocean has begun to throw at them. And down in Florida, Vaughan and his team are devising new methods to coax the slow-growing animal into overdrive.
Vaughan recounts how his lab used to grow coral. “I call it the old fashioned way,” he says. Normally it takes two years for Vaughn’s coral to grow from the size of a golf ball to that of an ice cream scoop, at which point his team would divide it into two or three pieces. It was a maddeningly slow process.
But in 2009, Vaughan stumbled upon a method to increase coral growth rate fifty-fold. Two weeks after accidentally breaking a small coral he noticed it had regrown the dime-sized area that had been damaged, and area that took two years to grow initially. And the small fragments that had broken off had grown to the size of a nickel.
Using this micro-fragmentation technique, Mote went from producing 600 corals in six years to 1000 corals in three or four months. Short on room, they began placing the coral fragments closer together on the racks. Normally coral will attack each other if they grow too close together, but Vaughan noticed that the clones began fusing with each other. After all, they were originally the same colony.
Now in one to two years the lab could fragment, grow,…