World news – Hidden coral diversity that is more important for conservation than previously thought


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April 2, 2021

from the California Academy of Sciences

In recent years, advances in DNA sequencing have uncovered a great deal of hidden diversity in reef building corals: species that appear identical but are genetically different. A team of researchers from the California Academy of Sciences and the University of Queensland, plus over a dozen international staff who are usually ignored because they are invisible to the naked eye, are taking a more holistic approach to understanding these hidden species by identifying overlooked ecological species examine differences that have profound implications for the vulnerability and resilience of corals that build reefs. The team hopes their findings, published today in Current Biology, will lead to a more nuanced look at coral diversity that encompasses more aspects than just looks to advance more strategic conservation planning.

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« We know that we greatly underestimate the true number of coral species because of this hidden diversity, » says the academy’s lead author and curator, Pim Bongaerts. « In our study, we provide one of the first clear examples of how coral species that look identical can vary greatly in ecology and physiology, from reproducing to their preferred depths. This means that our current framework for the classification of reef building corals, which are primarily based on morphology, limit our ability to understand and protect them. « 

With one of the largest genomic studies of a coral species to date, in which DNA samples were taken from more than 1,400 individuals The researchers at the beginning of their study found that the « snake coral » (Pachyseris speciosa) is one of the most widespread corals in the entire Indo-Pacific – are actually four different species that evolved millions of years ago. To their surprise, these species were indistinguishable from one another even at a microscopic level, prompting researchers to go a step further and look for ecological differences that may have been overlooked when they were considered one species.

Using remote-controlled vehicles and special deep diving equipment, the researchers examined corals from shallow depths of up to 80 meters below the surface – into the severely understaffed mesophotic zone of coral reefs. They discovered that while individuals of each species could be found over the entire depth range, they had different depths at which they were most common, with corresponding differences in physiological traits such as protein content that affect their ability to survive at their preferred depths and to thrive.

« Knowing which corals thrive where and at what depths is critical to protecting reefs, » says study co-author at the University of Queensland, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. « Most marine protected areas only protect shallow reefs, which means that hidden species in mesophotic depths are overlooked by current protection strategies. We have to investigate this protection gap further. »

In addition to the physiological and depth differences, the research team also developed a rapid DNA test, to identify these species in the field and monitor their reproduction. They discovered that there were differences between species in the timing of broadcasts spawning – the mechanism by which environmental influences cause entire coral populations to release their gametes in synchronism. This staggered spawning may explain the lack of inter-species crossbreeding (a common occurrence in many corals) even though they live side by side on the reef.

« For years we have wondered and wondered about the relevance of this hidden diversity whether we are missing something important, « says researcher and co-author of the academy, Alejandra Hernández-Agreda. « By using all the tools at our disposal to analyze not just the morphology but all of these other aspects of these species, we are now showing how this hidden diversity can mask vast differences in these species that are reflected in their ability to Coping with the rapidly changing conditions of the world’s oceans could be reflected. « 

Ultimately, the researchers hope their results will show the importance of taking a holistic approach to understanding these hidden species that appear identical, but may have material differences that affect global conservation efforts.

« At a moment when reefs around the world are rapidly deteriorating, » says Bongaerts, « it’s important to have this hidden diversity – not just that Species, but also their way of life and function – to capture in order to improve our understanding and our ability to protect.  » these fragile ecosystems.  »

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Related title :
Understanding the Hidden Diversity of Coral Reefs – Key to Protection
Hidden diversity of corals more important for conservation than previously thought


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