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Sydney scientists are feeding ‘little fat balls’ to coral to boost their survival in warming waters

On a brisk winter’s day in Sydney, most people find the seawater temperature near freezing. But for coral, it’s far too warm.

Rising water temperatures continue to threaten coral populations around the world, with a top United States science body recording ocean temperatures at an all-time high.

Experts warn the future for coral ecosystems is bleak.

Senior research fellow Selina Ward from the University of Queensland said an increase by just one degree above maximum summer temperatures can be enough to cause damage.

Selina Ward says more needs to be done to save coral ecosystems.(ABC News: Crystalyn Brown)

“If it’s only one degree, it then might take three months to have a bleaching event, if we’ve got a two-degree, or three-degree maximum it might be as little as four weeks,” she said.

And the consequences of losing coral reefs aren’t just devastating for marine life, Dr Ward warned.

“If we look at Australia, there’s about 65,000 jobs associated with the Great Barrier Reef, but if we look at the world, there are millions of people who feed on coral reefs.

“Reefs protect island nations from swell, so without them, those island nations are at risk if we add increased intensity of cyclones and storm activity, some sea level rise, you can see that these problems are really very severe.”

Ground-breaking research

A team of Sydney scientists are getting creative about how to provide these underwater gardens with the best chance of survival against global warming, starting with coral found in Sydney Harbour.

Jen Matthews holding coral

Jen Matthews hopes a diet high in fat will hold the key to protecting coral reefs.(ABC News: Courtney Barrett Peters)

With a passion for coral conservation, Jen Matthews is leading the ground-breaking research, after she was awarded a Biodiversity Fellowship by the University of Technology Sydney.

Half-way through a three-year research project, Dr Matthews and her students are hoping that tweaking what corals eat to include more fat, will help to shield them from heat stress.

“Just like every organism, corals require an optimal nutrition to grow, reproduce and survive diseases and environmental changes,” Dr Matthews said.

“But we actually know very little about what is an optimal nutrition for corals.”

A diver under water

Dr Matthews and her students used a hammer and a chisel to collect coral.(ABC News)

With the help of her students, native and invasive coral was collected from Cobblers Bay and off the Manly heads to be dissected and tested under different heat conditions in controlled aquariums at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science laboratories.

The specimens are then biopsied before scientists use DNA genotyping and lipidomics to understand a coral’s ideal nutrition when faced with thermal stress.

Using these findings, researchers will give corals what a nutritional supplement is to humans, but instead of vitamin C, it’s fat.

“Essentially, you can feed these little fat balls to the coral, and they take them, and they eat them”, Dr Matthews said.

“Corals are like jellyfish, they’re related to jellyfish but just upside down. They have tentacles that surround their mouth in the middle, so you can actually feed them with tiny little particles.”

A piece of coral

Researchers collected native and invasive sub-tropical coral from Sydney Harbour.(ABC News)

‘This research is really important’

Sydney Institute of Marine Science chief executive officer Martina Doblin applauded the project saying most people wouldn’t think of Sydney Harbour as having its own coral reef.

“This research on soft corals in Sydney Harbour is really important,” Dr Doblin said.

“Because we want to understand how they’re going to respond, or how they’re responding in real-time to changes in climate. 

“People may not know that corals exist outside the Great Barrier Reef marine system, and there are soft corals in Sydney Harbour that look a bit different.”

If the experiment proves successful, Dr Matthews plans to take the technique to the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef severely bleached

The repercussions of global warming are evident on our seas, as coral ecosystems continue to be decimated by marine heatwaves.

An aerial survey by the Australian Institute of Marine Science in 2022, found more than 60 per cent of community coral on the Great Barrier Reef had been severely bleached in its fourth mass bleaching event in seven years.


It’s hoped this research may provide reefs with an opportunity to reprieve and increase the growth rate of surviving corals.

“When corals bleach, they lose the relationship with this tiny algae that lives in their tissues and normally gives them all the nutrients they need to survive. When they bleach, they don’t get these nutrients … they starve to death”, Dr Matthews said.

Dr Ward said innovative approaches like this one may help treat reefs in the future if they’re scaled up.

“If corals can feed well, they’ve got a better chance at surviving a bleaching event. The idea of providing them with food, rather than leaving it to chance is a really clever one.

“Whilst this might not save the entire Great Barrier Reef right now, these strategies are a really good place to start”, Dr Ward said.

Although as Dr Ward points out there’s no panacea to saving reefs.

“The window for saving the Great Barrier Reef and other reefs in the world is getting smaller and smaller”, she cautioned.

“In order to save our reefs now, the most important thing is that we reduce our carbon emissions, we reduce them as quickly as possible.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-09-03/sydney-scientist-fat-balls-coral-reef-research/102802724 Sydney scientists are feeding ‘little fat balls’ to coral to boost their survival in warming waters

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