COLLEGE STATION, March 24, 2009 - Researchers led by a Texas A&M University professor have discovered coral beds off the coast of Hawaii that are more than 4,200 years old, making them among the oldest living creatures on Earth.
The team, directed by Brendan Roark of Texas A&M's College of Geosciences, and colleagues from the University of California-Santa Cruz and Australian National University in Canberra, have had their work published in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation.
Two different species of coral beds were documented using carbon dating methods, Roark says, with both being much older than previously believed. One species -
Leiopathes - is now confirmed to be about 4,265 years old, while the other species, Gerardia, is believed to be about 2,742 years old.
The coral beds were discovered in about 1,200 feet of water using submersible vehicles. One of the beds covers several hundred square feet, Roark notes.
"The beds are quite large, but sadly, not in very good shape," Roark explains.
"The color of the coral makes them highly sought-after for making jewelry, and the Gerardia coral especially is a beautiful gold color. There are laws protecting the beds, but much of the harvesting still continues.
"Also, the beds are threatened by local fishermen in the area. You could compare the situation to that of the Amazon rain forest areas, where huge tracts of land are disappearing because of man-made activities. The same is true of these coral beds."
The age of the coral would rank them among the oldest living creatures in continuous existence, Roark adds. Scientists know that some of the bristlecone pine trees in Northern California are also more than 4,000 years old.
It was previously believed that such coral beds were no more than a few hundred years old, he says, "so to find out that they are thousands of years old is a very exciting time for us."
Roark said the coral beds could keep researchers busy for decades.
"There are whole sets of ecology and biology questions that these coral beds raise," he points out.
"It's a case where one question leads to another and another, and we're still searching for some answers. The extreme age of the coral beds and their very slow growth, combined with the high levels of biodiversity surrounding the coral beds, means that protecting these reefs from further damage has to be a top priority."
About research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world's leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $582 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.