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Coral rescued from heatwaves in Florida have made babies in a lab

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An ocean heat wave off Florida is stressing coral to the point where they release life-sustaining algae and are turning white. It's known as coral bleaching. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week that coral bleaching has now reached reefs off eight countries. But scientists in Florida rescuing coral off the reef this month did get some rare good news. Some of the rescued corals made babies in their lab. WLRN's environmental reporter Jenny Staletovich met up with one of the scientists working to save the coral.

JENNY STALETOVICH, BYLINE: On a muggy south Florida night, coral scientist Andrew Baker cranked up the love songs at his University of Miami Rosenstiel lab.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Is this Barry White?

ANDREW BAKER: You bet.

STALETOVICH: Baker was hoping to get coral, rescued from steamy waters and now safely stored in outdoor tanks, in a more amorous mood.

BAKER: It worked yesterday.

STALETOVICH: Since the heatwave began in July, bleaching has spread across Florida's reef and offshore nurseries, where coral are grown to restock the reef. Baker and other scientists rescued thousands of still-healthy colonies and stashed them in labs from Tampa to the Keys.

BAKER: We don't normally have this many corals in tanks, and the reason we have it is because of the rescue operation.

STALETOVICH: Dive teams brought Baker dozens of milk crates piled with coral pulled from a nursery the week before. He and others are trying to preserve genetic diversity, and they're trying to protect years of work breeding coral to withstand oceans warmed by human-caused climate change. Spawning season began in early August. Now Baker hopes to save some unborn coral.

BAKER: So in a sense, it would be better if these were out there on the reef, but it might be more - ironically, more difficult to collect spawn from them.

STALETOVICH: Coral spawn like fish - by releasing eggs and sperm into the water to fertilize. That happens just once a year. Five years ago, scientists figured out how to get the coral to do that in the lab, a major feat in their efforts to outpace warming oceans. Baker is hoping to get the coral to spawn again on this night. But after a half hour with no action, he switches to Marvin Gaye, and within minutes...

BAKER: We got spawn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah?

BAKER: Oh, whoa - spawning, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Very nice.

BAKER: Someone hold the light over the - right over the spawn. Where were they?

STALETOVICH: Students and other researchers locate the tiny pink sacs using red lights and big droppers.

BAKER: So each one of those little dots represents dozens or possibly even hundreds of eggs. And it's all bundled together with sperm.

STALETOVICH: Some of the sacs will be separated and frozen, and some will be raised and replanted on the reef once the heat wave subsides in the coming months. So what was that magic song?

BAKER: It was "Your Precious Love" - yeah, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell.

STALETOVICH: Now NOAA scientists worry coral bleaching could spread across the globe. So Baker hits play again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR PRECIOUS LOVE")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Oh, heaven must have sent you from above.

STALETOVICH: For NPR News, I'm Jenny Staletovich in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR PRECIOUS LOVE")

MARVIN GAYE AND TAMMI TERRELL: (Singing) Oh, heaven must have sent your precious love. Oh.

TAMMI TERRELL: (Singing) And now I've got a song to sing telling the world about the joy you bring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Jenny Staletovich
Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
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