The Caribbean and tropical Atlantic are two of the more troubled regions of the world lately in regard to coral health, with studies from the IUCN showing that live coral coverage on Caribbean reefs is just 8 percent, down from 50 percent shown in studies from the 1970s. Some scientists deem the deterioration of coral reefs as nothing short of a catastrophe, demanding immediate action if we hope to see them survive in the coming years.
Elkhorn and staghorn corals are two of the most important reef-building corals in the Caribbean. The elkhorn is a complex structure with many large, wide branches, resembling the antlers of elk, and can be easily reproduced through fragmentation as well as spawning. Staghorn corals are stony with long, cylindrical branches that can grow to be over 2 meters in length and height, and act as reinforcements for the reef by growing in front of and behind the reef structure. Both are very fast-growing in relation to other corals, and form a strong barricade that absorbs wave power, protecting the shore from its force and erosion, as well as providing a vast habitat for all sorts of marine creatures.
Despite these strong characteristics, both types of coral face insurmountable threats from rising ocean temperatures, climate change, and ocean acidification — things that cannot be easily amended. Other threats like pollution, sedimentation from dredging and coastal development, and physical destruction of the corals themselves are a direct result of human action, and are therefore theoretically reversible by human action as well. This thinking has led to several organizations throughout the Caribbean and Florida establishing coral nurseries in an attempt to rebuild what’s left before it’s gone.
But nature might have another plan altogether. The emergence of a hybrid version of elkhorn and staghorn corals, called ‘fused staghorn’, combines the best features of these corals, and has been noted by researchers to be increasing in areas where the staghorn and elkhorn separately are diminishing. This discovery has encouraging implications for coral reefs and their chance of survival in a world where the threats just seem to keep coming.
Images via mattk1979