Marine scientists in Queensland, Australia, are restoring coral larvae on damaged areas of the Great Barrier Reef using a fleet of underwater robots to help disperse them back onto the reef.
Project leader Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University partnered with Professor Matthew Dunbabin of Queensland University of Technology to distribute the vital coral babies at Moore Reef off Cairns.
Their teams collected millions of coral eggs and sperm from the reef during last week’s spectacular annual mass coral spawning events on the reef, using a spawn catcher and floating nursery pool systems to grow the coral larvae.
“The larval restoration technique involves capturing spawn from thermally tolerant corals that have survived mass bleaching devastation, and rearing millions of larvae in floating nursery pools so they don’t float away before they are capable of settling on the reef,” explains Harrison.
“We’re excited to have successfully released millions of coral larvae back onto the reef, and dispersing large-scale larval clouds onto damaged sections of the reef.
“But it’s important everyone understands that restoration alone cannot save these beautiful complex reef ecosystems – urgent action on climate change is required to ensure their survival.”
Professor Dunbabin’s robot fleet included two new 'LarvalBots' and, for the first time, an inflatable LarvalBoat which carries a large volume of coral larvae at the water surface for targeted dispersal on the damaged reef areas, thereby increasing the efficiency of the larval supply.
“Over the last year we’ve been able to extend the reach of the robots' larval delivery system from just 500 square metres in six hours to more than three hectares in six hours,” says Dunbabin.
The team's new robot technology is generating excitement from reef researchers working on other badly damaged reefs, including in the Caribbean and Indonesia.
“We’ve had significant interest from all around the world to use LarvalBots to spread coral larvae where it’s most needed," , adds Dunabin, "and we’re designing a new system so that, in future, they can be easily fitted into backpacks.”
Professor Harrison believes that the project could “revolutionise coral restoration on reefs worldwide – restoring damaged reef systems and speeding up the recovery of these spectacular ecosystems.”