"The future of coral reefs ultimately hinges on how we address climate change. While we work to address this larger issue, many coral biologists are advancing solutions-focused research with the goal of enhancing coral resilience over the coming decades, buying time and strategically conserving key species and regions so there is more to rebuild from.
"Coral reefs are facing imminent collapse. I want to do everything I can to help safeguard these incredible ecosystems into the future - for the communities who depend on them, for those who love them, and for the next generation to experience them."
–Dr. Rebecca Albright, Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology
Read Dr. Albright's report on her 2019 research findings below.
Saving the world’s coral reefs
An estimated 50% of the world's coral reefs have been lost over the last several decades and we’re projected to lose more than 90% by 2050—a statistic we hope to change through solution-focused scientific work.
For the last 15 years, I have been studying the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs. My research works across scales (from single-cell interactions to reef-scale processes) and disciplines (biology, ecology, biogeochemistry) to foster a systems-level understanding of how coral reef ecosystems will fare in today's rapidly changing world.
My lab’s primary research focus is on the impacts of excess carbon dioxide on coral biology, ranging from effects on coral reproduction to whole-of-reef scale calcification and metabolic functioning, and addresses the many insults that reefs are currently facing. We are particularly interested in how changing global conditions will influence coral reproduction, and what this might mean for the next generation of corals.
At the Academy, our coral science is pioneering a solutions-focused research program that tries to understand the most critical barriers to successful reproduction and potential solutions. It is my hope that understanding how to maximize recruitment in the face of environmental stressors will help us leverage restoration efforts to enhance reef resilience. We work across academic, government, and non-profit sectors to feed this new coral science directly into relevant sectors.
Above: Dr. Albright assesses coral health in Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Strength in genetic diversity
Reproduction is fundamental to the persistence of all species. In particular, sexual reproduction is critical to generate novel genetic diversity, an important natural pathway to support resilience and adaptability. In the wild, coral spawning happens infrequently, typically once a year, and in many locations the success of annual spawning events is breaking down as coral populations continue to deteriorate.
In recent years, there has been increased interest in conservation measures that help support sexual reproduction in corals as a measure to foster genetic diversity and adaptive potential. Part of this effort is a focus on land-based conservation breeding programs to facilitate sexual reproduction in corals kept in professional aquaria. One co-benefit of this work is access to multiple life history stages to facilitate fundamental research on coral biology and genetics in controlled settings.
The success of the Academy’s in-house Coral Spawning Lab, one of only a few sexual spawning labs on Earth, is making it possible for researchers to investigate a wide variety of fundamental and applied research questions with the hopes that findings will advance conservation efforts worldwide.
Building a remote Coral Spawning Lab
My work with coral spawning and reproduction has been ongoing for nearly 15 years in a wide variety of species and locations. At the Academy, I’ve had the opportunity to partner my lab with a professional aquarium for the first time in my career, which has made it possible to establish the Coral Spawning Lab—a long-time dream and one of the only ex-situ spawning systems in the world.
In many organisms, reproduction is linked to the lunar cycle, so to recreate the environmental conditions that elicit coral spawning in the wild, we have to take wild-collected coral and simulate lunar phases (full moons and new moons), seasonal cycles in water temperature (summers and winters), and sunrises and sunsets. The building of the spawning lab has been a true team effort involving my lab, Steinhart Aquarium, and the Academy’s Engineering team. The long-term goal of this project is to create multiple spawning systems at the Academy to spawn corals year-round, overcoming the need to rely on unpredictable natural spawning cycles to advance scientific discovery.
My hope is that if we can understand how to facilitate reproduction in the lab, we can not only advance land-based conservation breeding techniques but use that knowledge to leverage restoration efforts in the wild. Additional goals are to generate opportunities for innovative and collaborative research to study a wide variety of questions related to coral biology, physiology, and conservation.
Below: Dr. Albright livestreamed a coral spawning event in her lab on April 22, 2020, during the Academy's temporary closure.
Starting in 2018, we collected colonies of Acropora hyacinthus in Palau and transported to the Academy’s Coral Spawning Lab where they are now thriving. In April 2020, the lab celebrated its third-annual coral spawning event with stunning success: fertilization and settlement resulted in hundreds of Acropora hyacinthus babies that just marked their two-month birthday. Additionally, the 2019 coral babies are nearly 1 1/2 years old and are thriving.
The 2020 spawning event represented our first re-spawning year, during which colonies that were collected in 2019 and spawned in 2019 underwent the 7-9 month gametogenic cycle in our system and spawned again in 2020 at the same time as wild populations. This event was truly exciting and closes the loop on the “proof of concept” stage for this long-term project. Our team is now entering an “enhancement” phase of the project, which focuses on continuing to grow and optimize our system and the research coming out of the lab. Research collaborators are interested in this powerful scientific resource for projects involving novel questions related to coral biology, physiology, genetics, and a wide variety of research focused on understanding and protecting the reefs of the future.
During the Academy’s temporary closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked with our in-house engineers to install a livestreaming webcam in the spawning lab so that I could remotely monitor spawning activity. This exciting new livestream enabled anyone with a computer or phone to witness live coral spawning at the Academy. Due to the success of the camera and associated events, we plan to make the spawning cam an annual event and look forward to many more livestream events!
From the lab to the field
We aim to expand our Coral Spawning Lab to include multiple systems, allowing for several spawning events each year, with a two- to three-fold acceleration in the pace of scientific discovery. Our hope is that these expanded experimental facilities will have the capacity to manipulate temperature and pH, thereby enabling the coral team to evaluate the coupled effects of ocean warming and acidification across life stages of corals and reef-dwelling organisms. Findings from our spawning research directly feed into field restoration activities, linking the Academy’s off-site and on-site conservation and restoration approaches.
About Dr. Albright
A world-renowned coral reef biologist and former researcher at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science, Dr. Albright joined the Academy as a curator of invertebrate zoology in 2016. Her research on the ability of coral reefs to cope with change ingeniously digs into the twin climate issues of ocean acidification and warming seas.