Small Scale Experimental Systems for Coral Research: Considerations,
Planning, and Recommendations
Only a few decades ago, keeping coral alive and healthy in closed, captive systems proved to be
challenging. However, by the mid-1980s several breakthroughs were made and success with
captive systems became more commonplace. In the short time since, there has been a surge of
interest, knowledge, and technological advances with significant contributions from marine
science, the aquarium industry, and aquarium hobbyists. Currently, there are several strategies
for maintaining live coral outlined in many books, articles, and online resources. The majority of
information now available focuses on success in either home and public aquaria (for aesthetic
purposes) or commercial production.
Likewise, the difficulty in keeping coral in captivity has limited their use in well controlled
laboratory experimentation. Much of the research on coral health and disease has been
observational (vs. manipulative), and until recently, experimentation has been performed in a
field setting which is subject to many uncontrollable variables, some measurable and some not.
Furthermore, experimentation with infectious agents of coral diseases and toxicant effectors
(i.e., chemical or biological agents eliciting a response) in the wild carries the risk of harming
natural populations and raises ethical dilemmas. As a result of these issues, we and others are
working to create laboratory life support systems for corals that can be used for
experimentation under well controlled and monitored parameters. This is in contrast to the
hobbyist or public aquaria approaches that focus on enhancing aesthetic properties (i.e., color,
feeding behavior etc.) rather than approximating optimal physiological condition of the coral.
Laboratory life-support systems strive to control as much variability as possible thus providing
greater statistical power (i.e., the ability to detect significant differences from collected data).
In the following technical memorandum, techniques and procedures are presented to assist
researchers in developing small experimental systems for coral and attempts to identify
possible confounding factors to consider when setting up laboratory experiments with coral.
The system features presented here are intended for relatively simple experiments when funding, space, and time (i.e., experimental duration from days to one or two months) are
limiting. While focused on scleractinian coral, often referred to as stony or hard coral, the
following information can be applicable to studies involving other cnidarian model organisms,
such as anemones (Order Actiniaria) or soft coral (Order Alcyonacea).
Citation: Bartlett, T.C. 2013. Small Scale Experimental Systems for Coral Research: Considerations,
Planning, and Recommendations. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 165 and CRCP 18. 68pp.
Appearing as solitary forms in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago, corals are extremely ancient animals that evolved into modern reef-building forms over the last 25 million years. Continue Reading →
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