starcoral Coral Conservation: Barking up the Wrong Tree?

Great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa)

Scientists and conservationists might be barking up the wrong tree when it comes to finding corals which are suited to surviving the global climate crisis. This is according to a recent research paper which was published in the journal Science.

Two researchers, Ann Budd and John Pandolf, came to this conclusion after they closely analyzed the link between evolutionary innovation and geography of the boulder star coral species complex (which is known in the scientific community as Montastrae annularis). The boulder star coral complex is a group of Caribbean reef corals.

They took a look at the shape of various growths of coral, both recent and fossil in order to see what morphology differences existed. The fossils involved dated back to over 850,000 years ago.

The results were that the quickest, and most drastic, changes to the morphology of the fossil coral growth happened at the outer edges, and the least drastic, and slowest, changes happened in the more central parts.

This seems to suggest that the edge of the coral played an integral role in evolutionary innovation, which may just be caused by cross breeding, or any other number of factors.

This is very big in terms of conservation of the coral reefs. The conventional wisdom dictates that we preserve the center of the coral, more so than focus on conserving the outer edges.

However, by focusing our efforts on the center, we may be overlooking the important sources of adaptation during climate changes.

Ann Budd, lead author of the paper, elaborates more on the subject. “…areas ranked highly for species richness, endemism and threats may not represent regions of maximum evolutionary potential.”

The conclusion of the paper is that in order to properly design marine reserves in the future we need to also take the evolutionary processes and the link between the coral and other species into account by looking at the outer edges as well.