Genetic analysis of the new coral found that its closest relative is Acropora abrotanoides. Zoe considers it possible that A. abrotanoides, the 19th century Fijian coral and the new Pacific elkhorn could turn out to be variants of the same species - but says there aren't enough data to confirm this, at this point.
The uncertainty surrounding the taxonomic status of the Pacific elkhorn poses a conservation dilemma. To be given threatened species status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more needs to be known about the coral, its population size and it relationships to other coral species.
"Currently the Pacific elkhorn would be rated as 'data deficient', meaning there isn't enough information to determine whether it is threatened, vulnerable or critically endangered," she explains. This means that the Pacific elkhorn would join 141 other coral species on the IUCN list whose status is uncertain.
However the status of its Atlantic relative, A. palmata is much more certain: regarded by most marine researchers as the outstanding symbol of the plight of Caribbean corals, it is rated as critically endangered after vanishing from most of its Caribbean reef habitat in recent decades.
Zoe says that the current IUCN definitions are unhelpful in terms of the conservation of many rare and newly described corals such as the Pacific elkhorn, adding it is likely that many of the corals classified as 'data deficient' are actually at risk of extinction.
"When Zoe showed me pictures of the Pacific elkhorn, I was shocked," says leading coral geneticist Professor David Miller of CoECRS and James Cook University.
"The colonies look just like the critically endangered Caribbean species A. palmata, one of the most distinctive of all corals. The fact that these c
|Contact: Zoe Richards|
ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies