Restoring the Reef-Builders

If you happen to find yourself off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula a few nights after the full moon in the hottest month of the year, it may appear to be snowing underwater. But it wouldn’t be an aquatic snowstorm—it’s the annual spawning event of the critically endangered Elkhorn coral.

Published January 31, 2018

Incredibly, these corals know exactly when to release their gametes into the water in a synchronized event that allows the Elkhorn to broaden its gene pool. Each coral polyp in a colony is a separate animal, but is often are genetically identical to its neighboring polyps, so gametes from different colonies are necessary for successful fertilization.


Currently, there are so few colonies of Elkhorn coral—particularly in Mexico—that they aren’t geographically close enough to cross-fertilize, which leads to unfruitful spawning events.

That’s where members of the National Aquarium team—working with partners from across the United States and Mexico—step in.

National Aquarium Assistant Curator of Blue Wonders Jennie Jansen traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula this summer to work in tandem with SECORE International, an organization that promotes worldwide coral reef conservation, as well as local stakeholders National Autonomous University of Mexico and Xcaret Park to coordinate fertilization of the Elkhorn coral.  

During the annual spawning event, the SECORE team and partners collected Elkhorn gametes, and then introduced sperm and eggs in a lab setting. Successful fertilization resulted in more than 100,000 coral embryos, which were raised in nurseries until they were ready to be placed back on the ocean floor on manmade substrates. 

This process, which has been developed by the SECORE team over several years, increases the genetic diversity of the Elkhorn—a critical step in restoring this ecologically important species. Elkhorn is considered a reef-building coral that creates necessary habitat for an array of fishes and helps protect the shoreline from powerful storms.

Providing habitat and protecting shorelines are just two of the critical roles that coral reefs play in their ecosystems. The International Coral Reef Initiative declared 2018 the third International Year of the Reef to raise awareness about the importance of—and threats to—coral reefs, so there’s no better time to learn about these incredible ecosystems and why they’re so vital to the health of the ocean!  

Learn more about coral reefs and the actions you can take to help protect them.

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