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Unusual corals discovered off of the Big Island, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

A coral species new to the main Hawaiian Islands has been discovered in West Hawaii by a research team of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) divers and confirmed by researchers at UH Manoa’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory.

While doing reconnaissance SCUBA dives along the Kona coast of the Island of Hawaii, the dive team came across a large number of coral colonies, which none of the researchers had ever seen before. These robust finger-like colonies didn’t even look like they were related to any other corals in the vicinity of the main islands.

After returning the next day and photographically documenting the colonies, the coral was tentatively identified as Acropora gemmifera. Not only is this the first record of A. gemmifera in the main Hawaiian Islands, it’s the first record of any Acropora species occurring around the island of Hawaii.

Visual identification of the coral was subsequently confirmed by genetic sequencing done by Narrissa Spies of the Richmond Lab at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, Pacific Biomedical Research Center in Honolulu.

Narrissa Spies
Graduate student Narrissa Spies, pictured at the Ocean Leadership Practicum hosted by the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey, CA.

Spies was born and raised on the Big Island, where her father is a fisherman.  She is very familiar with the part of the Hawaii coast where the rare corals were found.  She said she was as surprised as anyone about the discovery, but that the corals are in an area that is not commonly visited.

“I know the area very well — it’s not accessible by land,” Spies said.

After DLNR contacted the Richmond Lab for help with species identification, Spies transported the sample back to Oahu for genetic analysis.  She extracted the coral’s DNA and looked for tell-tale signs.  The results were unequivocal.

“The presence of these coral colonies is a significant contribution to our understanding of local reef diversity and opens up speculation about what other rare corals may be found on the reefs of Hawaii island,” said DLNR senior biologist Bill Walsh.

Several Acropora species have been identified in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands; previously, several small colonies of the table coral Acropora cytherea have been reported from Kauai, and a single colony was recently sighted off Oahu.

The discovery of this rare species in the main Hawaiian Islands emphasizes the need for local marine and land-use conservation practices. Members of this genus have a low resistance and low tolerance to bleaching and disease, which can be made worse by pollution, overfishing, and climate change. They are also a coral species preferred by Acanthaster planci, the crown-of-thorns starfish, which is a coral predator.

A. gemmifera is common in shallow, tropical reef environments in the Red Sea, Australia, the Indo-Pacific, and central and western Pacific, but there are few records from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It does occur at Johnston Atoll, approximately 900 miles southwest of Hawaii.

There have been no historical reports of any Acropora species occurring around the Island of Hawaii nor were any observed in more than 4,500 DAR coral reef monitoring/research dives over the past 15 years.

Typically, this species is found intertidally and subtidally from 1 to 15 meters. The colonies can vary in color from tan/brown to green, blues and even purples. The Kona population is located in waters 4 to 10 meters deep and consists of tan/brown colonies ranging from young encrusting forms to mature colonies estimated to be at least 80 years old. A total of 75 A. gemmifera colonies were found at the Kona site along a 50-meter stretch of reef.

This finding was recently published online in the journal Coral Reefs.

In her daily work at the Richmond lab, Spies is trying to use genetics as a predictive tool to anticipate coral health problems before they occur. “We’re working to develop molecular biomarkers to detect stress in coral,” Spies said.  Such biomarkers could provide an early warning in time to head off catastrophic coral bleaching events.

Will she ever get a chance to see the A. gemmifera coral in its natural habitat?  Spies said she hopes the DLNR will bring her out on a boat the next time she goes home to visit her family.

“Next time I’m on the island, they said to give them a call!” Spies said.

Rare coral colonies
Multiple colonies of Acropora gemmifera. Photo by DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources.
Rare coral
Large colony of Acropora gemmifera with white tumor (growth anomaly) just below center of image. Photo by DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources.