April 2 (UPI) – Genomic surveys suggest that many coral reefs harbor hidden diversity. Corals that look identical are actually genetically different.
In a new article, published Friday in the journal Current Biology, scientists detailed important ecological and physiological differences between coral species that resemble each other.
The study’s authors said they hope their work will help conservationists develop and carry out more effective protection and restoration plans.
“We know we are greatly underestimating the actual number of coral species because of this hidden diversity,” Pim Bongaerts, a researcher at the California Academy of Sciences, said in a press release.
“We offer one of the first clear examples of how coral species that look identical can be very different in terms of their ecology and physiology, from when they reproduce to what depths they prefer. This means that our current framework to classify corals that build reefs based primarily on morphology is limiting our ability to understand and protect them, ”Bongaerts said.
For the study, scientists collected DNA samples from more than 1,400 individual corals across the tropical seas of the Indo-Pacific.
Genomic sequencing showed that one of the most widespread corals in the region, called snake coral, Pachyseris Fair, is actually four different species. Even under the microscope, the species looked identical.
To identify possible ecological differences between the species, the scientists put on the diving material and returned to the source.
Researchers observed reefs at various depths, from shallow reefs to mesophotic reefs, those that are between 100 and 490 feet below the surface of the ocean.
Although divers found all four species in the full range of depths, their observations showed that each species is more abundant at certain depths.
The four species also exhibited unique physiological traits, including different concentrations of proteins, that help them thrive at different depths.
“Knowing which corals thrive where and at what depths is crucial to reef conservation,” said co-author Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.
“Most marine protected areas only protect shallow reefs, which means that current conservation strategies overlook hidden species at mesophotic depths. We need to think more about this protection gap,” Hoegh- said. Guldberg.
Using data from genomic sequencing efforts, the research team designed a rapid DNA test that can be used in the field and help scientists quickly identify similar coral species.
Scientists hope that future studies will highlight how different snake corals respond to environmental changes, including increases in CO2 and rising ocean temperatures.
“At a time when reefs around the world are experiencing rapid degradation, it is critical to begin capturing this hidden diversity, not just of species, but of how they live and function, to improve our understanding and ability to protect these fragile ecosystems, ”Bongaerts said.