The photograph above shows two branches of elkhorn coral growing in the water near Key West, Florida. The brown and bumpy parts of the coral branches are alive and healthy. The white spot on the left branch is infected with the bacteria.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of University of Georgia

Coral killer on the loose: Are coral reefs dying because of our waste?
News story originally written on June 28, 2002

Coral animals may be very little but they are able to build large stony reefs in warm, shallow oceans. Lots of corals together can make a reef that is a home for many other reef creatures.

Now corals are in trouble and new research has found that something even smaller than coral is able to make a big change to Florida’s reefs. Tiny bacteria are responsible for killing many corals in the shallow water reefs near the Florida Keys.

The bacteria are usually found in the guts of people and animals. That means that when you flush the toilet, you have flushed some of these bacteria down the drain with the rest. It doesn’t hurt people, but it does hurt little coral animals.

The bacteria hurt one type of coral, elkhorn coral. There was a lot of elkhorn coral in Florida reefs a few years ago. Now it is hard to find living elkhorn coral in the water near Florida, and it may soon be an endangered species.

Scientists have been looking at the corals near Florida for many years. They could see how the white spots of the disease were killing the corals, but they didn’t know what caused it. Scientist Kathryn Patterson figured that out. She found the bacteria inside the bodies of sick corals.

Researchers still don’t know how the bacteria get into the corals, but they think that pollution is the cause. If water flushed down toilets in southern Florida does not receive proper treatment before it winds up in the ocean, it may contain bacteria that kill corals. The scientists hope that, if we get the bacteria out of the water, elkhorn corals may come back and fill Florida’s reefs again someday.

Last modified August 6, 2002 by Lisa Gardiner.

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