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Coral variances confuse species identities

  • COURTESY ZAC FORSMAN
    A close-up of Montipora patula sandpaper rice coral.
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When might an endangered coral species not really be endangered?

When it is not even a separate species, apparently.

Zac Forsman of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology recently led an investigation of genetic and structural features of Hawaii corals within the common genus Montipora. What the investigation found could have serious implications for scores of rare corals being reviewed for enhanced protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Of the 83 corals being considered for endangered species designation, nine are found in Hawaii waters.

Forsman and his colleagues found during their investigation that variances in colony shape, color and growth can cause some coral to be misidentified — a problem since coral species definitions are based on the coral skeleton.

According to UH, the study revealed two previously unknown species complexes in Hawaii, "showing that corals previously thought to be very rare may interbreed with more common species."

A UH news release quoted Forsman as saying, "The scale of variation that corresponds to the species-level is not well understood in a lot of stony corals; this is a big problem for taxonomy and conservation. We need to determine if these species complexes contain species that are in the early process of forming, or if they just represent variation within a species. Either way, it could change our understanding of coral biodiversity."

 

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