Popular Science

Death of the Reef

JUST OFF THE COAST OF THE Keys, wind-driven swells toss our little boat like a bath toy. Nearly 30 feet below, in the blue murk, divers tend their plot: a sparse patch of sea-floor 10 meters square.

One swimmer hovers over a brain coral the size of a fish bowl, studying its corduroy surface as she readies a syringe in one hand. She dispenses a droplet of white putty and dabs it onto the edge of the colony.

Back at the surface, Karen Neely, a Nova Southeastern University marine biologist with the easy manner (and tan) of someone who spends her professional life on the water, scans survey sheets marked with terse scribbles of observation. Coral reefs are bleaching around the globe, but Neely and her collaborators are grappling with a new, more mysterious epidemic. And to fight it, they’re using a weapon scientists never thought they’d unleash.

mistaken for rocks, are animals. Each colony is made up of tiny tentacled polyps crowded together to form a living skin that grows, mosslike, over an elaborate calcium-carbonate skeleton laid down by generations of clones. Like all animals, they get sick. Bleaching—an increasingly common affliction where heat-stressed colonies expel their colorful photosynthetic algae and turn white—could be akin to an auto immune disease. Bacteria and viruses threaten them too.

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