News Release

Coloring microscopic coral larvae to aid tracking for conservation and reef restoration

Staining with colored dyes allows researchers to track millions of dispersing larvae for first time

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Coloring microscopic coral larvae to aid tracking for conservation and reef restoration

image: Representative images of free-swimming and newly metamorphosed larvae (Nile blue, unstained, neutral red) from Acropora anthocercis, Platygyra sinensis, Coelastrea aspera, and mixed Nile blue and neutral red stained Dipsastraea favus larvae. White scale bars = 1 mm. view more 

Credit: Doropoulos C and Roff G, 2022, PLOS Biology, CC-BY 4.0 (

A new, low-cost staining method enables visual tracking of coral larvae as they disperse and settle in coral reefs, according to a study publishing December 6th in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Christopher Doropoulos and George Roff at CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere, Australia.

Corals are marine invertebrates of major conservation importance because of their ability to build reefs that in turn provide habitat for many other marine creatures, but they are threatened by climate change, pollution, and other human activities. They are able to produce trillions of microscopic larvae that disperse up to 100 kilometers and settle on the seabed, making tracking their movements challenging.

To investigate a novel method for tracking coral larvae, the researchers collected nearly 3000 larvae from lab-reared corals of two species (Acropora spathulata and Platygyra daedalea) and incubated them with one of four colored dyes at different concentrations. They found that two dyes – neutral red and Nile blue – successfully stained coral larvae and had minimal impact on their survival and settlement. Testing these two dyes on a further four coral species in the laboratory successfully stained 98% of larvae. To test the new method in the field, they captured eggs from wild spawning corals on the Great Barrier Reef, cultured them in larval pools in the Lizard Island lagoon and stained 10,000 larvae with Nile blue dye. They detected successful settlement of stained larvae on tiles placed in the lagoon.

The staining method provides researchers with a quick, simple, and non-toxic approach to studying dispersal in large numbers of coral larvae. It is also low-cost, allowing 100,000 larvae to be stained for around 1 US Dollar. The different color dyes could be used to differentiate between groups or species, making the method applicable to conservation planning, behavioral ecology, and reef restoration experiments in both laboratory and field studies, the authors say.

Doropoulos adds, “We have developed a novel method for colouring large numbers of coral larvae (millions to billions). Our method allows for immediate differentiation and visual tracking of coral larvae from dispersal to settlement, and will facilitate a wide range of de novo studies of larval behaviour and ecology.”


In your coverage, please use this URL to provide access to the freely available paper in PLOS Biology:

Citation: Doropoulos C, Roff G (2022) Coloring coral larvae allows tracking of local dispersal and settlement. PLoS Biol 20(12): e3001907.

Author Countries: Australia

Funding: This work was supported by CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere awarded to CD (, and the Moving Corals Subprogram awarded to CD ( that is part of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP, RRAP is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.