An Australian scientist has discovered what could be the world's rarest coral in the remote North Pacific Ocean.
The unique Pacific elkhorn coral was found while conducting underwater surveys of Arno atoll in the Marshall Islands, by coral researcher Dr Zoe Richards of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS).
The coral bears a close physical resemblance to the critically endangered and fast-vanishing elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) of the Atlantic Ocean, but genetic analysis has shown it to be a different species.
"When I first saw it, I was absolutely stunned. The huge colonies - five metres across and nearly two metres high with branches like an elk's antlers - were like nothing I'd seen before in the Pacific Ocean," Zoe recounts.
"So far I have only found this new population of coral to occur along a small stretch of reef at a single atoll in the Marshalls group," Zoe explains. "It grows in relatively shallow water along the exposed reef front and, so far, fewer than 200 colonies are known from that small area."
"The Pacific elkhorn coral has regular divergent blade-like branches that radiate out from single or multiple large central stalks. Its colonies are by far the largest of all the Acropora colonies observed at Arno Atoll, indicating that these are relatively old," she adds.
Whether the Pacific elkhorn is an entirely new species or not is subject to scientific debate, because Zoe has uncovered that over a century ago, in 1898, a scientist called Gardiner described a coral from the island of Rotuma, near Fiji in the South Pacific whose description fits that of the Pacific elkhorn. "Unfortunately at this stage, we do not have any genetic material of A. rotumana to confirm whether or not it is the same species as the Pacific Elkhorn."
This finding is of a population of elkhorn coral in the Pacific is of particular scientific interest because it represents
|Contact: Zoe Richards|
ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies