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UH microbiologists search for clues to coral die-off

Published On: May 03 2013 05:20:00 PM HST

Mysterious coral deaths keep plaguing Kauai's North Shore. Scientists are starting to zero in on the problem and now a federal agency is offering its help.

HONOLULU -

A mysterious die-off of coral along Kauai's north coast discovered by resident Terry Lilley last summer triggered a rapid response by a team of marine scientists.

Among those who saw firsthand the extent of the decimated reef smothered by a carpet of algae, was  a microbiologist at the University of Hawaii.

"I was shocked. I have done a fair amount of diving and I had never seen a reef in such bad shape," said Sean Callahan,.

Callahan brought back samples to his Manoa laboratory where graduate students have been helping to cultivate the suspect blue-green bacteria.

"If you can imagine what happens out in the field when it is not in the controlled environment and it is able just to grow.  It grows very fast. It covers corals very rapidly," said Christina Runyon.

It is in the Snyder Hall lab, where researchers have been studying other coral diseases like the outbreak that was recently in Kaneohe Bay.

The rice coral destruction leaves behind a trail of bleached white coral heads and is different from what's been found on Kauai.

Scientists believe the Kauai die-off may be due to a black-banded coral disease that has caused problems in the Caribbean.

A magnified picture of the culprit that's to blame for the outbreak shows the long filaments characteristic of the cyanobacteria.

It glows under an ultra violet light and what's scary is no one knows how to control it

"We don't know how to stop it, that’s for sure. The big question is, why now are they killing corals? What has changed in the environment that is now allowing this bacteria, that has probably been there for thousands of years, to now start attacking corals." Callahan said.

Just this week NOAA scientists joined in the search. They are actively diving Kauai's coast to find out more.

The team is mapping out the extent of damage in hopes of monitoring its spread.

Scientists now believe there are at least three types of coral that are vulnerable to the cyanobacteria--underscoring the sense of urgency to get the disease in check.   

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