Scientists discover the Lewis and Clark of corals

"This discovery makes us question many things we have taken for granted in coral ecology," said researcher Heidi Burdett.
By Brooks Hays  |  Oct. 17, 2017 at 11:42 AM
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Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Go west, young coral!

Lighting out for the territory is never easy, but when a handful of pioneers set a precedent and blaze a trail, it makes life less difficult for those who follow.

Coralliths, or mobile corals, are the pioneers of the seafloor, new research shows.

As detailed in a new paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, coralliths are tough. They're capable of growing on pebbles and dead or dying reefs fragments and can withstand harsh conditions like strong waves and currents.

When a team of researchers from Scotland surveyed corals in the Maldives, they found many reefs anchored to terrain not normally conducive to coral -- patches of sand and rubble. Scientists suspect coralliths allow other coral species to populate new parts of the ocean floor.

"For years we assumed that coral reefs, and small patches of coral in sandy habitats, needed stable ground on which to build," Sebastian Hennige, researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said in a news release. "Now we know that corals can engineer their own stable environment from nothing, and create habitats for all sorts of species in places that we thought were unsuitable for reef formation."

"This discovery makes us question many things we have taken for granted in coral ecology, such as how some reefs formed in the first place, and whether coralliths may play a role in reef restoration following disasters," added Heidi Burdett, scientist at Heriot-Watt University.

Not all coral species form coralliths, but those that do tend to be more resilient. These species could play an essential role in the ability of corals to adapt to climate change.

"The ecological processes described by our hypothesis may therefore become even more prevalent in the future," said Nick Kamenos, researcher at the University of Glasgow.

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