Aug 15, 2023 - Climate

How Columbus Zoo is helping Florida's coral reefs

Ramon Villaverde stands above a large fiberglass tub full of coral specimens

Ramon Villaverde, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's aquatic projects keeper, has studied and raised corals for nearly 30 years as a hobby and a career. Photos: Grahm S. Jones/Courtesy of the zoo

As waters surrounding Florida surge to hot-tub temperatures, animal experts at zoos like ours are playing a key role in saving coral reefs from catastrophic damage.

Driving the news: Temperatures have reached historic highs this summer, causing a massive coral bleaching event, Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports.

  • Researchers are transporting thousands of corals to tanks on land for protection — and rapid-response facilities are leaning on experts like the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's Ramon Villaverde to understand corals in captivity.

Why it matters: Reefs provide shelter, food and breeding sites to ocean animals, are integral to tourism and fisheries, and serve as a protective, natural buffer for Florida's coast.

  • Keeping corals in tanks is challenging, so practice and research into what works and what doesn't is key to reacting appropriately when a crisis happens.

Flashback: Twenty zoos and aquariums involved with the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project, including Columbus, have cared for and reproduced Caribbean corals in captivity for years. When conditions are safe, they've also reintroduced some back into the ocean.

  • The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and Florida government agencies launched the project in 2018 in response to stony coral tissue loss disease, a lethal threat spreading rapidly throughout the Caribbean.
  • AZA members share their knowledge with each other and the wider rescue community, while also preserving a diverse coral gene pool.
  • Columbus joined in 2019 and serves as a holding facility for studying the specimens, but Villaverde, the zoo's aquatic projects keeper, says it could help with breeding efforts if needed.

State of play: This year's bleaching due to rising water temperatures illustrates the importance of having a group of experts who understand how to care for corals in captivity to prepare for a variety of threats.

Rows of coral colonies in a 168-gallon fiberglass tub under blue lighting
The Florida coral colonies are cared for behind the scenes at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Zoom in: In Columbus, Villaverde tends to 18 coral colonies pulled from Florida years ago, in two 168-gallon fiberglass tubs in a behind-the-scenes area of Discovery Reef.

  • Though often mistaken for plants, corals are actually tiny animals related to jellyfish that require specific lighting, food, temperatures and water flow to grow and thrive.

What's next: Villaverde will travel to Florida next week to assist with rescue efforts — he'll be helping facilities set up new coral tanks.

  • He has worked in ocean conservation for nearly 30 years and says he's proud to be "a small part of a very big project."

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