It was in 2014 when researchers first noticed that something was amiss with Florida’s coral reefs. Brain corals in the Miami area started developing white patches that progressively grew in size until they were completely covered. Four years later, scientists are still baffled by the mystery disease that is believed to affect about half of the Sunshine State’s coral species.
According to a report from NPR, the disease adds to the ongoing problem of coral bleaching, which has greatly affected Florida’s coral reefs as ocean temperatures continue to rise. Scientists aren’t sure of what is causing the disease, but Erinn Muller, science director of the Mote Marine Lab in the Florida Keys, believes that it might be a bacteria infection.
“When they’re affected by this, the tissue sloughs off the skeleton,” Muller explained to NPR.
“[Once] we see that once a coral is infected, it usually kills the entire coral, sometimes within weeks. And it doesn’t seem to stop.
The disease appears to have affected brain and star coral species the most, which is crucial, as these species usually “form the foundation” for reef tracts, according to scientist William Precht, who was hired by Florida in 2014 to observe coral reefs off the port of Miami. He noted that there are some parts of the state where the disease has killed off almost all the corals in the area, leading to what is essentially a local extinction.
“When you go out and swim on the reefs of Miami-Dade County today, it would be a very rare chance encounter that you’d see some of these three or four species.”
Fortunately, there appears to be some hope for Florida’s depleted coral reefs, according to NPR. For the past five years, Joey Mandara, of the Mote Marine Lab’s Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration, has been growing baby corals in large tanks, raising them until they reach adulthood, and planting them on the reefs. His efforts were described by Muller as a “beacon of hope” for the state’s reefs, with NPR adding that his work is now “more important than ever,” considering how the disease is now in its fourth year.
“We’re really at a critical juncture right now, where we have corals left on the reef,” Muller commented.
“Before we lose more corals, now is the time to start making a change.”
All in all, Mote is hoping to plant about 35,000 lab-grown corals onto Florida Keys coral reefs. According to Muller, these products of the Mote laboratory have proven to be resistant thus far to the disease.
In addition to the above efforts, the Miami Herald wrote last month that Mote’s scientists have teamed up with researchers from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other organizations to investigate the cause of the mystery disease. However, the researchers have run into their share of challenges, as they remain unable to identify the bacteria that might be responsible for the disease.
In order to isolate the harmful bacteria from the good kind, the researchers would first need to grow bacteria cultures, which they had yet to do at the time of the Miami Herald’s report, then apply the cultures to healthy corals. NPR wrote that the team has tried a number of other techniques to identify the cause of the disease, or at least stop it from spreading any further.