Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Carpet corals in the Coral Triangle

The central Indo-Pacific is commonly called the Coral Triangle due to its high hard coral diversity, which is in fact the highest in the world (at least 500 species). The region contains a wide range of habitats which likely gave rise to the generally very high biodiversity. More than 3,000 species of fish live there together wit other species rich groups such as foraminifera or stomatopods. However, for many groups of marine animals especially invertebrate species we really have little information on diversity, let alone reliable estimates of species numbers.

The biodiversity of the Coral Triangle is under threat already for quite some time mostly due to poor marine management which includes uncontrolled coastal development, overfishing and destructive fishing. An estimated 120 million people live within this region and approximately 2.25 million of them are fishers who depend on healthy seas to make a living. However, a general lack of political will combined with poverty and a high market demand, prevents concerted efforts to change despite the fact that major conservation organisations such as the WWF consider the region a top priority for marine conservation.

Newly published research on zoantharians, a group of animals related to corals and anemones has again demonstrated how little we know about marine diversity in the so-called 'center of marine biodiversity' , sometimes also called the "Amazon of the seas". 

An international team explored the diversity of these colonial anthozoans. These animals are often called carpet corals and actually quite popular in the aquarium world, among hobbyists and professionals, as they are relatively easy to keep alive and healthy, and will often spread to cover rocks in bright circles of color. One of the characteristics of this group is that they incorporate sand and other small pieces of material into their tissue to help build their structure.

In order to provide a basis for future research on the Indo-Pacific zoantharian fauna and facilitate comparisons between more well-studied regions such as Japan and the Great Barrier Reef, this report deals with Central Indo-Pacific zoantharian specimens in the Naturalis collection in Leiden, the Netherlands; 106 specimens were placed into 24 morpho-species and were supplemented with 88 in situ photographic records from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. At least nine morpho-species are likely to be undescribed species, indicating that the region needs more research in order to properly understand zoantharian diversity within the Central Indo-Pacific.

These findings are entirely based on classical morphological work. Imagine what might happen if we add a molecular component such as DNA Barcoding to this. I predict that this would change numbers once more and let's not forget that this study looked only at a subset of a small group of organisms. However, it seems to be a strong indication on the extend of unexplored invertebrate diversity in the Coral Triangle. 

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