Growing up in Fiji instilled me with a profound love of the ocean and, in particular, coral reefs. Corals fascinate me: they are anatomically very simple animals, but they show remarkable complexity in growth form, reproduction and life history.
Did you know that coral taxonomy is based on their fine skeletal structure? And that it takes three large books weighing 8kg (!!!) to provide detailed descriptions and photographs of most known species?
Corals are notoriously difficult to identify underwater because a species can sometimes have very different outward appearances depending on the habitat where a given specimen is located. For example, a certain species of coral may grow lots of branches when it lives on shallow reef flats, but this very same species may become flat and plate-like in deeper reefs. To make things more confusing, some corals can hybridize like plants.
One of the challenges of working in the global center of marine biodiversity is that there are more than 550 coral species living in Raja Ampat alone! For our surveys, we only have to identify the corals to genus level, but even that has its challenges when some groups look very similar to each other. Have a look at a coral up close if you have the chance — you will be surprised at how intricate corals are in terms of their skeletal architecture and how much they can vary in appearance.
Rizya Ardiwijaya, a Conservancy diver who assists monitoring staff at all our sites in Indonesia, is currently helping me with the coral resilience assessments. He and I spend most of our dives with our noses 30cm above the reef, identifying and counting corals.
Sometimes we have lively debates underwater (via our waterproof slates, of course) about the genus of coral we are observing. In the evenings, we spend up to two hours looking through the coral books to make sure we have our identifications correct and in synchrony with each other. So far, we have found 54 genera of coral in Misool and we are expecting this number to go up as the expedition continues!
Explore further coverage of this expedition on nature.org and learn more about the Conservancy’s involvement in the game-changing Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security.
(First image: Acropora coral. First image credit: TNC. Second image: From left to right, cynarina, physogyra, euphyllia ancora and lobophyllia coral. Second image credit: TNC.)