Failure to respond to a coral disease epizootic in Florida: causes and consequences

By 2020, losses of corals have been observed throughout Florida and into the greater Caribbean basin in what turned out to be likely the most lethal recorded case of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. A Perspectives paper, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology, provides an overview of how Florida ended up in a situation, where the best that could be done is rescuing genetic material from coral species at risk of regional extinction.

Guest blog post by William F. Precht

A colony of the large grooved brain coral, Colpophyllia natans, infected by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. The photo shows the progressive, rapid advance of disease, left-to-right, across the colony.
Image by William Precht.

Dredging projects conducted in association with coral reefs typically generate concern by environmental groups, resulting in careful monitoring by government agencies. Even though the aim of those dredge projects is to widen or deepen existing ship channels, while minimizing damage to coral reef resources, there are often the intuitive negative assumptions that dredging kills corals.

The recent Port Miami Dredge Project started as an uncomplicated case story. However, significant problems arose, caused by a concurrent and unprecedented coral disease epidemic that killed large numbers of corals, which was initiated following a regional thermal anomaly and coral bleaching event.

The coral disease, known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), was first observed in September 2014 near Virginia Key, Florida. In roughly six years, the disease has spread throughout Florida and into the greater Caribbean basin. The high prevalence of SCTLD and the resulting high mortality in coral populations, coupled with the large number of susceptible species affected, suggest that this disease outbreak is one of the most lethal ever recorded on contemporary coral reefs. The disease is still presently active and continues to ravage coral reefs throughout the region.

The initial response to this catastrophic disease by resource managers with purview over the ecosystem in Southeast Florida was slow. There is generally a noticeably short window of opportunity to intervene in disease amelioration or eradication in the marine environment. This slow response enabled the disease to spread unchecked. Why was the response to the loss of our coral reefs to a coral disease epidemic such a massive failure? This includes our failure as scientists, regulators, resource managers, local media, and policy makers alike. With this Perspectives paper, published in Rethinking Ecology, my intention was to encapsulate the numerous reasons for our failures during the first few years of the outbreak, reminiscent of the early failures in the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, the Port Miami dredging project was ongoing when the coral disease epidemic began. Some managers and local environmental groups blamed dredging, rather than SCTLD for the coral losses, reported in the project’s compliance monitoring program. Second, this blame was amplified in the media, because dredging projects are intuitively assumed to be bad for coral reefs. Third, during this same time, the State of Florida prohibited government employees from acknowledging global warming in their work. This was problematic because ocean warming is a proximal cause of many coral diseases.

As a result, some managers ignored the well-known links between warming and coral disease. A consequence of this policy was that the dredging project provided an easy target to blame for the coral mortality noted in the monitoring program, despite convincing data that suggested otherwise. 

Specifically, the intensive compliance monitoring program, conducted by trained scientific divers, was statistically significant. SCTLD that was killing massive numbers of corals throughout the region was also killing corals at the dredge site. Further, this was happening in the same proportions and among the same suite of species. 

Finally, when the agencies responded to the outbreak, their efforts were too little and much too late to make a meaningful difference. While eradication of the disease was never a possibility, early control measures may have slowed its spread, or allowed for the rescue of significant numbers of large colonies of iconic species. Because of the languid management response to this outbreak, we are now sadly faced with a situation where much of our management efforts are focused on the rescue of genetic material from coral species already at risk of regional extinction.

The delayed response to this SCTLD outbreak in Southeast Florida has many similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic response in the United States and there are lessons learned from both that will improve disease response outcomes in the future, to the benefit of coral reefs and human populations.

Publication:

Precht W (2021) Failure to respond to a coral disease epizootic in Florida: causes and consequences. Rethinking Ecology 6: 1-47. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.6.56285

Taxonomist Day at Pensoft: Three species in the WoRMS’ Top 10 Marine Species of 2019 described in our journals

Happy Taxonomist Appreciation Day, everyone!

In a lovely tradition, the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) issued the Top 10 Marine Species of 2019 for the ninth time around on time for this special day! 

In what has also already become a tradition we are particularly proud of, it’s not one, but several species described as new to science in Pensoft journals that make it to the renowned list! Even if it’s a slight step back from last year’s five entries, this year, we see a total of three species making it to the list: the Vibranium Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus wakanda) and the Green Rat Clingfish (Barryichthys algicola), both published in ZooKeys, and Thiel’s Boring Amphipod (Bircenna thieli) first known from the pages of Evolutionary Systematics.

Struggling to put a face to the name? Let us bring the stories behind these fantastic discoveries for you: 


The real-life fairy wrasse, whose scales shine bright like sci-fi vibranium

Even if the “twilight zone” – the ocean depths from 60 to 150 meters underneath the water surface, are long known to be teeming with all sorts of fascinating reef-dwelling lifeforms that still await discovery, California Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) initiative Hope for Reefs and partners are already concerned with the protection of these fragile habitats. One of the ways they do this is by deploying the taxonomic approach: recording and defining every creature the current environmental crisis could be putting in danger.

One of the latest discoveries made by the CAS team and Yi-Kai Tea, lead author and PhD student at the University of Sydney, is a stunning wrasse species with colours so mesmerising and vibrant that immediately triggered the creativity of the scientists. Discovered amongst the dusky coral reefs of eastern Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, the species received the scientific name Cirrhilabrus wakanda in a nod to the Marvel Entertainment comics and movie Black Panther, where Wakanda is a mythical nation. 

The fish also goes under its common name: Vibranium Fairy Wrasse, because of its hypnotising scales reminiscent of the fictional metal. In the franchise, the vibranium is a rare, robust and versatile ore capable of manipulating energy. In its turn, the scales of the Vibranium Fairy Wrasse have a pigment so strong, their shades survive even when preserved.

“When we thought about the secretive and isolated nature of these unexplored African reefs, we knew we had to name this new species after Wakanda,”

said Yi-Kai Tea.

Story via Forbes*

Find more in the WoRMS’ press release.

***

Research article in ZooKeys:

Conway KW, Moore GI, Summers AP (2019) A new genus and two new species of miniature clingfishes from temperate southern Australia (Teleostei, Gobiesocidae). ZooKeys 864: 35-65. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.864.34521


The clingy, yet long unknown green fish

You might think that a common name for a genus of tiny, less than 21 mm long marine inhabitants, such as ‘Rat Clingfish’ is way too unusual already, but it’s getting even more curious when you find out about those species’ mind-boggling lifestyle. 

These two miniature clingfishes were first spotted around microalgae in Australia back in the 1980s and since then they would puzzle scientists so much they would simply refer to them as “Genus B”. However, this was about to change, when in 2019, the US-Australian research team of Drs Kevin W. Conway, Glenn I. Moore and Adam P. Summers collected and studied enough specimens found in dense stands of macroalgae in intertidal and shallow subtidal areas along the coast of southern Australia. There, the two clingfishes use their well-developed adhesive discs located on their tummies to attach to the microalgae. Because of their miniature size, they have evolved multiple reduced and novel distinctive features.

As a result of their study, we now have the genus Barryichthys, whose common name is Rat Clingfish, and two new to science species assigned to it: the Brown Rat Clingfish (Barryichthys hutchinsi) and the Green Rat Clingfish (Barryichthys algicola), where the latter was found to be particularly intriguing thanks to its peculiar green colouration and a species name translated to “one who inhabits the algae”.

Find more in the WoRMS’ press release.

***

Research article in ZooKeys:

Conway KW, Moore GI, Summers AP (2019) A new genus and two new species of miniature clingfishes from temperate southern Australia (Teleostei, Gobiesocidae). ZooKeys 864: 35-65. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.864.34521 


The boring vegetarian amphipod  

Another impressive creature with a taste for algae described in 2019 from Australia is the Thiel’s Boring Amphipod, which is indeed boring. The tiny crustacean, which can be found in colonies of hundreds in Tasmania, eats its way through its favourite bull kelp leaving behind tunnels.

Another peculiarity about the species is its head, which when seen from the front resembles that of an ant!

With its species name: Bircenna thieli, the scientists behind the study – Drs Elizabeth Hughes (Natural History Museum of London, UK) and Anne-Nina Lörz (University of Hamburg, Germany) pay tribute to respected crustacean expert Prof. Dr. Martin Thiel, who had originally collected some of the studied specimens.

Find more in the WoRMS’ press release.

***

Research article in Evolutionary Systematics:

Hughes LE, Lörz A-N (2019) Boring Amphipods from Tasmania, Australia (Eophliantidae: Amphipoda: Crustacea). Evolutionary Systematics 3(1): 41-52. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.3.35340