With humans scattered throughout the globe, it is hard to imagine lands still unexplored or species undocumented. Yet, on the remote French Polynesian Gambier Islands a new coral reef species has been found thriving in underwater lagoons. Echinophyllia tarae was discovered by marine biologist Francesca Benzoni and the research crew members of the Tara Oceans International Research Expedition.
The recently discovered species is the newest member of Echinophyllia, a genus of coral whose members are found in the Indo-Pacific Ocean from the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean to the western and central Pacific Ocean. Benzoni and her team discovered Echinophyllia tarae while sampling 24 sites along the lagoons of the Gambier Islands located at the southeast tip of French Polynesia. Due to the remoteness of the islands, the last recorded study of these corals was conducted by naturalist Jean-Pierre Chevalier in the mid seventies. During his 1974 exploration, Chevalier observed a dominant presence of the species Echinophyllia aspera. When Benzoni explored the lagoons, she didn’t find any Echinophyllia aspera, but instead discovered an undescribed species, Echinophyllia tarae.
The new coral species Echinophyllia tarae is distinguished by its brown mottled coloration. Photo by: Francesca Benzoni.
Benzoni believes that Chevalier may have found and collected Echinophyllia tarae and thought it was Echinophyllia aspera, but since his collection cannot be located, this cannot be confirmed.
“Dr. Chevalier had an incredible knowledge of corals,” Benzoni told mongabay.com. “It is my personal opinion he did find and collect E. tarae, but thought it was E. aspera. The genus Echinophyllia, like several other genera of scleractinian corals is not very well studied. Because corals are so morphologically variable, it is not uncommon that we collect samples because they look somehow not typical of the known species and find out later, once we study the collection, that we actually collected a new guy.”
Characteristic of the Scleratinia family, Echinophyllia tarae produces a hard, rigid skeleton composed of calcium carbonate and, like the eight other species of its genus, has a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic algae living in its tissue. Echinophyllia tarae commonly grows on the tissue fragments of dead coral and inhabit the muddy environment of reefs at depths between 5 and 20 meters (16-66 feet) on both well-lit and shady surfaces. Patterns of partial death and regeneration within colonies are common and may be due to competition with other benthic invertebrate species. Echinophyllia tarae can be distinguished from other Echinophyllia species by its large polyps, mottled browns or bright green coloration and small colony formation. The species was named after Tara, the exploration vessel that housed the researchers who discovered it. This name is doubly significant, as in the Polynesian language it also is used to denote spiny, pointed objects, as well as a sea goddess.
This new discovery adds insight into the mysterious diversity of hard corals, as well as their biology, evolution, and biogeography. It also sparks further curiosity as to whether there are more underwater spiny, sea goddesses yet to be discovered in remote areas? However, future research of hard coral species could be hindered by current threats of global climate change, ocean acidification and human induced changes to reef structures.
- Benzoni, Francesca. “Article for Mongabay.com.” E-mail interview. 27 Nov. 2013.
- Benzoni F (2013) Echinophyllia tarae sp. n. (Cnidaria, Anthozoa, Scleractinia), a new reef coral species from the Gambier Islands, French Polynesia. ZooKeys 318: 59, doi:10.3897/zookeys.318.5351.
- EurekAlert! A New Coral Reef Species from the Gambier Islands, French Polynesia.Back to EurekAlert! AAAS, 26 July 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. .
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