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A species of coral reef has been bred in human care for the first time ever, a breakthrough that the team of scientists in Florida say may help slow the decline of coral reef die-off.

The ridged cactus coral – part of the world’s third largest coral barrier reef system in Florida, or “America’s Great Barrier Reef” – reproduced for the first known time in a lab setting at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

The species is one of many corals facing widespread destruction off Florida and in the Caribbean due to disease, said senior coral scientist at the aquarium Keri O’Neil.

O’Neil said the hope is that the coral reproduced at the aquarium can one day be reintroduced into the ocean and reproduce to help stave off extinction. 

In preserving coral reefs, maintaining a diversity of species is important, O’Neil said.

“What makes a coral reef unique – all of these different species have slightly different shapes and growth forms and that what makes the coral reef so complex,” she said.

The research is part of a larger project in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Corals at increased risk due to the disease outbreak – known as stony coral tissue loss disease – have been taken out of the wild and brought to accredited aquariums primarily to protect them.

It has also given researchers the chance to study corals and their reproduction that they otherwise know little about.

Last August, researchers at the aquarium were able to get Atlantic Ocean coral to reproduce in human care, also a world first.

With the ridged cactus coral, O’Neil said a lot is unknown. She and her team were unsure when exactly it would reproduce and what the offspring would look like. They knew the larvae would likely be released overnight so they designed collectors to catch them they could check each morning.

When O’Neil saw the first one, she said she wasn’t even sure it was a larva.

“I saw these sort of eggplant shaped things that were just very slowly moving but changing shapes,” she recalled, thinking, “‘Wait that moves like a coral larva.'”

“I feel silly working with coral for 20 years and being unsure,” she added. “But it was that new of a thing. You don’t get those moments very often.”

O’Neil also noticed a pore that would become the mouth of the coral after it settled. It’s those mouths that the larvae come out of when they’re born – a process the aquarium captured on video, O’Neil said.

“It’s probably quite a stressful process to pop these little babies out of your mouth,” she said.

Since the first larva was collected a few weeks ago, O’Neil said they’ve counted at least 350 larvae, 36 of which have successfully settled and developed into a little coral polyp, the individual coral organism of which many can create a reef. 

“To me the most exciting part of the work that they’re doing is the fact that they’re being successful with these corals,” said Pamela Muller, a professor of geological oceanography at the University of South Florida who studies coral reefs.

Although not the most common or the most important species in terms of building coral reefs, the ridged cactus coral can play a role in making reefs resistant to waves, Muller said. The research may also help scientists better understand sexual reproduction among corals in general which can be applied to other species.

“They’re learning all the time about things that will help them be successful with major reef builders,” Muller added.

The team is still collecting offspring, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re not sure when the reproduction will stop, O’Neil said. They’ve limited the number of people in their labs at a given time, so they’re relying on video calls to share updates. “We’re trying to share our joy digitally,” O’Neil said.

Given the larvae’s large size, O’Neil is hopeful they will survive when introduced to a reef restoration or coral nursery sites.

“Our resolve to save Florida’s endangered coral reefs continues, and this historic breakthrough by our coral experts, our second in eight months, provides additional hope for the future of all coral reefs in our backyard and around the globe,” Roger Germann, the aquarium’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

For any species to survive such a massive threat like the disease outbreak corals face, evolution and adaption are needed, O’Neil said. And that can’t happen without new combinations of genes and sexual reproduction for corals. 

“Every time I see a new species reproduce, I have a … renewed energy and hope that what we are doing can actually save corals from extinction,” O’Neil said.

Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

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