The Blue Coral - a new species or an unknown 'variety'?

Coralku

31 Oct 2021

The treasures of biodiversity are not yet entirely discovered, and we believe to have found something new.

'Too precious too lose' & 'we risk to lose something we haven't even discovered yet' - are two things we often hear in environmental news. Both are true, and we certainly do agree.

It was during a routine coral reef monitoring survey in late 2019, when one of our researchers came across a weird 'Blue Coral' (a.k.a. Heliopora coerulea). It looked different, very different. Instead of the usual, columnar-like appearance, this one looked more like a crust with 'bumps & lumps' - hardly reassembling the usual Blue Coral. But the coral's polyps and the surface structure of it's skeleton looked exactly like a typical Blue Coral, so it must be it...right? Well, wrong! But sometimes corals do these weird things, as they form something called eco-morphs.

An eco-morph is a growth-form of a coral that is formed mainly due to the existing environmental conditions. For instance, some corals are branching in back-lagoons, where waves are less intense. Take the same coral and put it on the reef crest, were wave intensity is at it's peak, and the coral may look like a flat table, or like a cushion with many smaller branches. No surprise, our researcher thought that it was a strange eco-morph of the Blue Coral.

Fast forward 2 years: several scientists reportedly have found new species of Blue Coral along the Kuroshio current. Until this point, only a single species of Blue Coral was known, and the fact that there is now genetic evidence that more Blue Coral species exist, (possibly) means, that our eco-morph may not just have been an eco-morph, but a new species altogether. We rushed back to Pulau Lang Tengah in October 2021 to have a closer look. We collected some broken fragments and collected data on the abundance and occurrence of this eco-morph. Suddenly, this feeling of excitement and discovery has gotten into is, and we were hoping to reveal something new.

So here we are, facing immense threats from climate change, industrial fishing and pollution, and yet we are uncovering the hidden gems of Malaysian coral reefs. Too precious to lose, indeed! But does this really make any difference? We believe it does! Coral reefs are so rich in diversity, that many biomedical experts & researchers have started to look into coral reefs for valuable biochemical compounds, which can be extracted to produce new medicine and drugs. In view of the global pandemic, this should be enough reason to realize that coral reef biodiversity is essential for our health and wellbeing. But let's disregard that, and just really contemplate for a moment what it means if we find a new species. It means that whilst we struggle to save the complexity of ecosystems, we have not even fully understood it. It means that despite all the degradation, there is still much left to discover. Simply put, there is one more reason to protect coral reefs. Isn't that enough?!?

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