When talking with Josh Moline about his work and passion for coral conservation, it’s easy to forget that the outlook for much of the world’s coral reefs is a grim one. Moline, a Life Support Operator at the Minnesota Zoo, is so full of infectious energy that it’s nearly impossible to not feel a sense of hope and optimism. And with conservationists as passionate and dedicated as Moline on the Zoo team, a case for cautious optimism is easy to make.

Moline’s interest in biology and environmental sciences began while he was studying at the University of Minnesota. He graduated with a degree in ecology, evolution and behavior and a minor in animal science. Through work at Sea Life here in Minnesota and a subsequent internship at the Minnesota Zoo, his interest in aquariums grew. Moline has now worked full-time at the Zoo for 5 years in multiple roles. While he began his tenure as an aquarist, he recently changed positions and is now a member of the Life Support team which focuses on the development and maintenance of aquarium systems.

“I always knew that I wanted to work with animals and in zoos and aquariums. Through my internship at Sea Life I really fell in love with corals and the sharks,” Moline explains. “I like the science of aquarium maintenance and the chemistry that is involved in rearing corals. It’s 50% Zen gardening and 50% intense scientific knowledge,” he continues. “I tell people that working with corals is like gardening but when all your plants bite each other and you have to manufacture the air they breathe. It’s a lot of fun.”

Corals may appear to be awfully similar to plants, or even a clump of rocks, but they are actually animals, very much alive and dynamic beings. “They’re not just colorful rocks,” chuckles Moline. “Working with them has been so amazing because I get to see how much they change throughout each day. They really respond to their environmental conditions like light and temperature.”

Many species of coral are highly sensitive to changes in their environment. Scientists call these types of plants and animals “indicator species” because their health or well-being at a given time provides us with important information about the overall state of the environment they inhabit. If corals in a reef die-off in mass numbers or stop sexually reproducing, it acts as a red flag to observant people that something in the environment has changed, and quite possibly for the worse.

Moline (right) working with restored corals in the nursery in Curacao.

Coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface but they support over 25 percent of all marine life and provide vital services to hundreds of millions of people. Unfortunately, tropical coral reef coverage has declined by up to 50 percent over the last several decades and they continue to be threatened by warming temperatures, ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution.

Moline is not only passionate about caring for corals at the Minnesota Zoo, he has taken his expertise thousands of miles south to Curaçao, a small Caribbean island not far off the coast of Venezuela. Moline received a grant from the Minnesota Zoo Foundation in 2018 to support the coral conservation work of SECORE International, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to the restoration and preservation of our world’s coral reefs. During his time there, Moline supported SECORE’s large-scale reef restoration efforts. Through this program, coral larvae are formed in a lab and then “planted” in a nearby nursery where they can get a head-start on life, growing without the constant threat of predation. After about a year in the nursery, they are then released back into the wild.

In addition to his dedication to coral conservation, Moline recently helped with an innovative sand tiger shark research study at the Minnesota Zoo. Sand tiger sharks are notoriously difficult to breed in managed settings and attempts by aquariums across the world have been largely futile. The Zoo recently partnered with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC) to conduct an observational behavioral study of the sharks at the Zoo with the goal of providing information to influence rearing and breeding protocols.

The intention, passion, and enthusiasm that Moline brings to his work every day is easy to notice. In 2021, Moline received the Minnesota Zoo’s Animal Care Excellence Award for his teamwork and disposition. Moline was nominated by colleagues for the award and they noted in their submission that “Josh constantly has a positive attitude and is a huge asset to the aquatics team.”

The Minnesota Zoo aims to be a global leader in wildlife conservation, and our mission is well-supported by collaborative, dedicated, and thoughtful team members like Josh Moline. Plan your next visit to the Zoo soon to see the colorful and ethereal aquariums and chat with our talented and knowledgeable staff!