LEILA FADEL, HOST:
For the first time, scientists have repeatedly coaxed Atlantic pillar coral to reproduce in a lab. It happened at The Florida Aquarium. And scientist Keri O'Neil leads the team there. She joins us now from Apollo Beach, Fla. Welcome.
KERI O'NEIL: Thank you very much for having me - excited to be here.
FADEL: So what does this breakthrough mean? Why is it such a big deal?
O'NEIL: Corals are notoriously complex in their annual spawning cycle. It takes lots of different environmental cues to make this sort of mystical event happen once a year. And this species that we're working with is highly endangered. It's on the U.S. threatened species list and is really facing possible local extinction here in Florida. So we're hoping that this will actually prevent that from happening.
FADEL: So it could save the reef.
O'NEIL: Well, It definitely could save this species and many other species. Our coral reefs are facing a lot of problems right now. And I don't think anybody would be as boastful to claim that any one thing is going to save all of the world's coral reefs. But we certainly can't save them unless we can save the species. So being able to prevent some of these rare and highly threatened species from going extinct by keeping them in a laboratory and being able to still reproduce them in a managed breeding type situation really just gives us an option for the future. It's going to take a lot of time to get our oceans back to a healthy environment that can support really healthy reefs. But now we have this option and this tool where we can keep the corals safe in a well-designed aquarium setting and then reproduce them for many years to come to restore the reefs when they're ready.
FADEL: So how do coral reproduce exactly?
O'NEIL: Yeah (laughter). So coral 101 is that coral is an animal. They produce sperm and eggs. And they do this once a year. Just over a few nights in August, all the corals release their gametes out into the water at the same time.
FADEL: So how do you get coral in the mood to reproduce - lighting, music?
O'NEIL: Yeah. We do actually sometimes play music. But I think that's more for us because we do have to sit and monitor these corals for hours at a time and sometimes many days in a row. But when it comes down to that final month, it's all about when sunset is and then when moonrise is. So our lights are programmed to come on at sunrise. And then they get gradually brighter throughout the day. And then they fade down again. And they actually go off right around sunset. And then we have a little warm white LED covered in a Ping-Pong ball that simulates our moon. And then that will actually turn on at moonrise. So it's really those two key things that appear to be the final cues for the corals to release all of their gametes right around - within 20, 30 minutes of one another.
FADEL: And so you really do play Barry White.
O'NEIL: Yeah. We do. So we actually have our coral spawning playlist. That was put together by one of my staff members, Rachel Serafin. So she's more of the DJ of coral spawning. So she put together the spawning playlist, which has all sorts of songs to get everybody in the mood.
FADEL: The DJ of coral spawning - I like that.
FADEL: That's Keri O'Neil, a scientist at The Florida Aquarium. Thank you for coming on the program.
O'NEIL: Thank you for having me Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.