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Common bacteria kills elkhorn coral off Florida keys, says UGA research team

Populations of the shallow-water Caribbean elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, are being decimated by white pox disease. Losses of living elkhorn coral in the Florida Keys typically average 85 percent. A team of scientific investigators, led by researchers from the University of Georgia, has identified the common fecal enteric bacteria, Serratia marcescens, as the cause of white pox.

The source of the bacteria that is killing the coral is still under investigation, but it can be found in the intestines of humans and other animals. It can also survive as a free-living microbe in both water and soil. This is the first time this common bacterium has been shown to cause the death of marine invertebrates.

The research was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as an outcome of the Coral Reef Monitoring Project being conducted in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The project is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Coral Reef Monitoring Project began in 1995 as a component of the sanctuary's water quality protection program. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,896 square nautical miles of seagrass beds, mangroves, hardbottom areas, and coral reefs, including elkhorn coral.

Elkhorn coral is an important Caribbean shallow water species, providing both food and shelter for many animals on the reef. Its massive branching form produces the highly complex three-dimensional structure upon which many other reef organisms depend. This structure frequently supplies the foundation upon which other species in the reef live.

"It is very sad that the one coral species affected is the magnificent branching elkhorn coral. These are the giant redwoods of the reef," said James Porter, professor of Ecology and Marine Sciences at the University of Georgia and research team leader. "What used to be the most common co
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Contact: Kim Carlyle
kosborne@arches.uga.edu
706-583-0913
University of Georgia
17-Jun-2002


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