Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University and his research team in the water.
Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University and his research team in the water. Gary Cranitch (Queensland Museum

'Sex on the reef': It's not what you think

THE scientist who co-discovered the phenomenon of "sex on the reef", otherwise known as mass coral spawning, is leading the breakthrough that aims to accelerate regrowth of corals.

For the first time, researchers have fast- tracked the formation of new coral colonies on small areas in the Great Barrier Reef using "baby corals" conceived and successfully settled directly on the reef through a pioneering pilot project funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University is the lead researcher on the project, the first of its kind on the reef to successfully re-establish a population of juvenile corals from larvae settling directly on the reef.

"This pilot study carried out on Heron Island shows that our new techniques to give corals a helping hand to conceive and then settle, develop and grow in their natural environment can work on the Great Barrier Reef

"The success of this new research not only applies to the Great Barrier Reef but has potential global significance. It shows we can start to restore and repair damaged coral populations where the natural supply of coral larvae has been compromised."

 

Acropora valida coral starting to spawn
Acropora valida coral starting to spawn Gary Cranitch (Queensland Museum

During the November 2016 coral spawning, Professor Harrison and his team travelled to Heron Island for the Australian-first trial.

They collected vast quantities of coral eggs and sperm during mass spawning, using them to grow more than a million coral larvae, and then delivered the larvae onto reef patches in underwater mesh tents.

 

Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University adding coral larvae to a mesh tent.
Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University adding coral larvae to a mesh tent. Gary Cranitch (Queensland Museum

Professor Harrison's team returned to Heron Island eight months later to discover more than 100 surviving juvenile corals established on the settlement tiles out on the reef.

"The results are very promising and our work shows that adding higher densities of coral larvae leads to higher numbers of successful coral recruits," he said.

 

Collecting coral spawn.
Collecting coral spawn. Gary Cranitch (Queensland Museum

Professor Harrison's research builds on the success of his team's work in the Philippines in an area of reef highly degraded by blast fishing, which had similar positive results.

"Our previous studies in the Philippines showed that corals can grow from microscopic larvae to dinner-plate sized adult colonies within three years and were able to sexually reproduce," he said.

"This work at Heron Island is the first step towards proving we can apply these techniques on the Great Barrier Reef."



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