A mysterious epidemic continues to sweep South Florida’s reefs, transforming corals into lifeless skeletons and threatening undersea structures that support tourism, provide hurricane protection and serve as homes to a vast range of marine life.

Called white plague, white blotch and other names, depending on the pattern of damaged or destroyed tissue, the disease has infected more than 20 South Florida coral species from the mid-Florida Keys through Palm Beach County, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“The reef is in a state of emergency,” said Jennifer Stein, South Florida marine conservation coordinator for the Nature Conservancy. “It needs a lot of attention, a lot of research, a lot of focus, especially with this disease.”

The disease arose during a worldwide, three-year coral catastrophe called bleaching, in which unusually warm ocean water led many corals to expel the piece of algae that provided them with color and gave them a source of nutrition through photosynthesis.

Although coral can recover from bleaching, the ordeal weakens them and makes them vulnerable to disease. Particularly hard hit was Australia’s famed Great Barrier Reef.

Despite the conclusion of the bleaching episode last summer, South Florida coral reefs have not recovered, with more and more corals falling victim to a disease that can kill within two weeks of infection. Scientists at universities, state and federal governments, and environmental groups are racing to study the disease, in hopes of finding ways to stop it.

Corals are tiny animals that live inside skeletons they construct from minerals drawn from seawater. Generations of these skeletons form coral reefs, rocky structures built up over centuries, with a thin layer of living coral tissue on the surface.

Despite occupying only a tiny fraction of the footprint of the world’s oceans, coral reefs provide habitat for about a quarter of the world’s marine species.

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