By Spencer Arnold
One of the philosophies that is central to our work here at the NHRCP, is the preservation of the genetic diversity of our coral reefs. Koh Tao’s reefs are beautiful and diverse ecosystems. containing a wide variety of different coral species and growth forms. The emphasis that we place on the understanding of coral taxonomy helps our team of conservationists gain an appreciation for the genera of coral that are less abundant on our reefs, encouraging the protection of these marginalized species. But the world of taxonomy is a tricky business, even for the experts. It was under this philosophy that we took inspiration to construct a new series of artificial reefs this last month.
These three new sculptures (Porites, Montipora, Favites) are the first of the new Taxonomic Museum of Coral Genera that will help all that come through our program learn as they dive. The double helix is a widely recognized symbol in the twenty first century and it should be. It’s the shape that is taken on by the building blocks of life. Our chromosomes, which are in turn made up of tens of thousands of genes, program our development. In Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene he sums up the power of the gene:
“They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”
Our own genes have changed dramatically from those of our primordial ancestors. After millions of years of evolution, Homo sapiens have finally taken the stage on planet Earth, but some genes have survived the tests of time unchanged. Corals first begin appearing in the fossil records 550 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion, making them one of the most ancient animals on our planet.
They haven’t just been around a long time in terms of evolutionary history. Coral colonies can survive for thousands of years. The individual polyps within a colony die in time, but they pass on their genetic information through asexual reproduction allowing their genes to live on in their replicas. The oldest living coral on our planet is thought to be more than 4,000 years old. That means that some corals contain genetic material that‘s been around since Stonehenge was first erected. These individual genetic sequences have survived every historic event that we can think of in humankind’s past.
Corals have accomplished all of these incredible feats of endurance in some of the most volatile habitats on our planet. Only able to occupy coastlines, corals are battered and destroyed by waves, exposed to the harshness of the air and sun by the tides and beyond them lie the largest expanses of desert on our planet: the open ocean. Corals flourishing under such unlikely circumstances has puzzled biologists for centuries, perhaps most famously “Darwin’s Paradox”. Thanks to our unwavering curiosity as a species, the riddle has been solved. The answer lies in the coral’s harmonic symbiotic relationship with photosynthesizing zooxanthellae, providing the coral with the energy it needs to build the largest natural structures on our planet in exchange for a home within their magnificent structures. This age old relationship is now being tested.
By preserving the corals of Koh Tao, we are helping to protect some of our planet’s oldest heritage. The genes within these prehistoric organisms are a relic of the origins of life on Earth. They are a tried and tested survival machine, but will they survive us? Will we be able to pass on these ancient ancestors to the generations that follow us? The answer is: not without help. The year 2016 has already begun leaving its mark on corals around the globe. The white reefs are a metaphorical red flag, a warning that if action isn’t taken soon it will be too late. Join us and other reef conservationists in our efforts to slow the decline of these precious ecosystems.
The helix sculptures that were submerged for this project were the result of the combined effort of the many wonderful students and interns who worked tirelessly in the scorching sun to make it all happen. These structures will provide fragmented corals with a stable base on which to grow, attracting all of the life that depends on them for their survival. Due to the hard work of a group of individuals, life now has a chance to thrive in an area where little was able to exist before. Sometimes it seems as though our planet has 7 billion problems, but the potential of each of us as individuals has the power to turn these 7 billion problems into solutions.