NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – When you think about the Nashville Zoo, the Florida Keys probably don’t come to mind. But they are doing something behind the scenes to keep the waters in that area thriving.

Much like the Nashville Zoo helps keep endangered animal species from going extinct through the Species Survival Plan, they are also helping coral reefs thrive in the Keys.

Bryan Danson, Nashville Zoo Area Supervisor of Aquatics, explained why this is necessary:

“There has been a disease that has gone through the Florida Keys and is now going through the rest of the Caribbean called Sony Coral Tissue Loss Disease,” Danson explained. “This disease, unfortunately, will kill the coral and may have taken heads of coral that may have been hundreds of years old. And it will kill them within weeks to months.”

“There are over twenty species of coral that are susceptible to it,” said Danson, “and these are primarily our reef-building corals that are actually building the coral reefs that are down in the Caribbean and in the Florida Keys.”

The disease is fast-moving, and will eventually pass, but many corals will have died. So, in conjunction with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, the association of zoos and aquariums (including the Nashville Zoo and other aquariums and universities) have removed some coral before the disease reached them, and brought them back to their aquarium labs.

“The ultimate goal is to get them to reproduce,” Danson explained. “So, these corals are never going to go back out in the wild, very unlikely. But what we’re going to try to do is we’re going to try to put their babies back out in the wild. What we found is that they produce lots of offspring. So, even a colony that’s very small can produce thousands upon thousands of offspring. And so, we can produce way more coral recruits that we can put out into the wild through sexual reproduction than just fragmenting the coral and just growing it up that way,” said Danson.

“Then we can start putting these corals back out into the wild once that disease has moved its way through, and they can survive again.” Danson said,” And the idea is that we can also improve the genetics because we are also saving the genetic diversity of these corals out in the wild.”

Although they found that they could apply an anti-biotic paste around the diseased part of the coral, it would be virtually impossible to do this all over the Florida Keys and the Caribbean.

“But you can see where the big white spots are,” Danson pointed out. “It just forms. And then the tissue just dies from there.

“And so, if they don’t put that band on it, the anti-biotic paste, then it won’t ultimately survive,” Danson explained. “But what they’ve done is they’ve gone out to all these reefs that were ahead of the disease line. They found colonies that are about this big, and about the size that we have here, they removed just a few of them from each reef. They spread it out over the course of the whole Keys so that they weren’t removing an entire reef or anything like that, and they just removed a few of them from each reef and then spread them out to the other facilities.”

So, it may be hard to believe, but baby corals that were born here at the Nashville Zoo, may one day be re-plenishing the reefs in the Florida Keys.