Suburban Michigan aquarium an ark for Florida corals

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 Michigan’s Sea Life Aquarium cares for endangered corals. Video by Rachel Duckett for Great Lakes Echo.

By Hannah Brock

In a small back room of an aquarium in a Michigan suburban mall lies a tank of endangered corals native to places more than a thousand miles away.

Michigan’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auburn Hills is one of several teams across the U.S. hosting  corals rescued from a disease rapidly  destroying Florida reefs, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The stony coral tissue-loss disease was first spotted in 2014 and has continued to spread, according to the commission. Scientists are still investigating a cure for the disease that attacks 20 of Florida’s 45 stony coral species.

The commission reached out to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for help, said Lauren Grauer, a marine biologist at Sea Life. The goal was to pull out healthy corals before the disease could hit them.

That’s how these corals ended up at Sea Life Aquarium, located at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets.

“We were one of the facilities that volunteered to take some in,” Grauer said. “We currently hold eight species and 13 corals, so (we) have doubles of a few. But we took (the) corals in late 2019 and we’ve been holding them ever since.”

By partnering with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Florida Coral Rescue has farmed imperiled corals out to 27 facilities across 14 states, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. These rescues are a collaborative effort from several groups, including Disney and SeaWorld.

Daily care of the corals involves changing their water, monitoring the salt in the water and feeding them pellets and plankton, Grauer said. Corals also host algae, which they feed on.

Despite their plant-like appearance, corals are animals. When they are fed, their tentacles emerge and wave, which Grauer calls “happy and fluffy.”

“A lot of people think they look like rocks, but I think they’re really charismatic and they have a lot of different mannerisms,” Grauer said.

Despite their charisma, corals are worth saving because they’re the “rainforest of the sea,” Grauer said. Some fish start their lives in corals and they are barriers to storms hitting southern coasts.

Such storms become more frequent and extreme as the climate warms. The warming, caused by the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, is also mitigated by coral.

“Just like the rainforest, they’re big carbon sinks,” Grauer said. “So they suck in a lot of the carbon dioxide and they release a lot of the oxygen that we breathe.”

The corals aren’t permanent residents at Sea Life. Each one sits on a tile marked with the exact location they were taken from, Grauer said.  They will be returned once it’s safe to do so.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sea Life offered a behind the scenes tour where visitors could see the corals, Grauer said. However, these tours are currently postponed.

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