For thousands of years, each Spring the coral on the Great Barrier Reef spawns for just a few nights after the full moon, releasing their eggs and sperm into the warm waters. This year, however, something different has happened to the coral.
Scientists, including Dr. Rebecca Spindler from Taronga Zoo, have spent two weeks collecting the sperm and embryonic cells from the coral and frozen or cryopreserved them. These frozen cells were then transported to Frozen Zoo at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
The samples collected from the Great Barrier Reef can remain frozen, but alive, for hundreds of years. They will be critical to support the structure and future of Australia’s reefs, because if needed, they could be used to restore and potentially reseed reefs.
Smithsonian Institution scientist, Dr. Mary Hagedorn, has developed this technology and applied it to reefs in the Caribbean and Hawaii, but this was a first attempt to apply this technology to The Great Barrier Reef. With partners from the Taronga Zoo, the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, and Monash University, these scientists are helping to provide an insurance program for Australia’s reefs.
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo is playing a pivotal role in this future-thinking conservation program as the home of the Frozen Zoo. These coral are important additions to the Frozen Zoo, which maintains the genes of many species held in Australian zoos,” said Dr Spindler.
“Australia’s reefs provide over $6 billion annually to the economy, and it is amazing to think that the Taronga Western Plains Zoo, located over 1,700 km from the Great Barrier Reef, is potentially holding the future survival of this iconic Australian ecosystem,” said Dr Spindler.
A range of conservation strategies can be employed to ensure the preservation of coral reef diversity into the future.
“Freezing of coral cells in a way that keeps them alive so that they can be regrown into coral colonies at some pojnt in the future, is one possible strategy”, said Dr Madeleine van Oppen from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.