This region has more species of coral reef than any other place on the planet. This 2.3 million mile (6 million square kilometers) area in the Pacific Ocean supports the economies of several nations and provides livelihood to over 100M people in the region. This hotspot of marine biodiversity in Southeast Asia is the most diverse place in the ocean and is known as the Coral Triangle.
This region is a lesser-known part of the ocean covering Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Though not as famous as the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Triangle has over 30% of the world’s total coral reefs.
Moreover, the Coral Triangle is the most biodiverse place on earth. Over two-thirds of the known species of coral are found here and 37% of the fish that inhabit the coral reefs around the world are found here.
6 of the 7 species of marine turtle are found in this region, which is also home to the sperm whale, the blue whale, dugongs, and dolphins.
The reefs found in this region are also more diverse than in any other region on the planet. Over 600 species of coral reefs are found here, which is 10 times the varieties found in the Caribbean Sea.
Since the time of Darwin, scientists and researchers have been trying to understand the reason behind this incredible diversity. It is crucial that many of the coral reefs that blossom in this area live in the dark, muddy waters, and not in the clean water of the tropics. These coral reefs in this region seem more capable of withstanding warmer ocean temperatures and rising ocean temperatures.
A Hotspot Of Biodiversity
The micro-habitat diversity in the region of the Coral Triangle is mind-boggling. Areas like Bali or Verde Island have an incredible range of biodiversity. Coral Reef Scientist Luiz Rocha says that the composition of the reef in the Coral Triangle changes drastically even if one moves 100 yards among the reefs. It might turn completely different within that distance.
Around 600 different species of corals have a diverse collection of habitats and have adapted totally to them. Some of these reef-building species have adapted to survive and thrive at depths and also in colder waters. Other species of corals are specially adapted to thrive in sediment-rich and muddy waters instead of the clear waters they normally prefer.
The waters of the Coral Triangle are also home to incredible biodiversity.
Understanding The Abundance Of Life Forms In The Coral Triangle
Many theories have been put forward explaining the reason behind the incredible resilience of reefs in the Coral Triangle. Scientists have sought to explain the phenomenon based on a few theories.
The Coral Triangle is home to an incredibly diverse habitat. From the rocks shores, and white sandy beaches, to the volcanic islands and the mangrove forests, this region has it all. Scientists believe that this wide assortment of landscapes contributes to the variety of the species found in this region.
The reason behind it is that all forms of marine life forms, including the corals, have been made to acclimatize to the geologically and geographically complex conditions prevalent in the region for ages.
The Coral Triangle is constantly supplied with fresh cold waters from prevailing currents. This theory is known as the center of the accumulation hypothesis.
It is believed that numerous species originate from the isolated archipelagos in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, such as the Maldives and Hawaii, are swept by the currents and enter the Coral Triangle region.
Once these species are swept to the Coral Triangle, they mingle with the existing species and form a rich diversity of life forms in the region.
The Coral Triangle is bang in the middle of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Large colonies of marine types from both water bodies colonize the Coral Triangle in regions where the basins of the two oceans overlap. This also increases the biodiversity of the region.
Many regions in Indonesia have fauna from the Pacific Ocean region, while other parts have marine life forms from both regions. This overlapping of marine biodiversity creates a rich ecosystem.
The chances of extinction decrease whenever the area of a particular species is extensive and diverse. Whenever a species is found in diverse regions of the planet, the chances that it will become extinct lessens.
So even if the species are decimated in other parts of the ocean, they can manage to survive in another, thus protecting it. As the Coral Triangle is the most extensive region of coral reefs on the planet, it naturally has the lowest extinction rate than other marine hotspots on the planet.
The Caribbean Reef and the Great Barrier Reef are the most exposed regions on the planet and have altered extensively for the worse in the past years. But the Coral Triangle continues to be a stable region for the survival of the coral reefs and the marine plants that survive in it. And this resilience of this region has persisted for an extensive geological period. Scientists believe that the biodiversity of the Coral Triangle is due to these stable environments that have persisted for the past 30M years. The biodiversity of this region may be the combination of several of these hypotheses.
Predicting The Future Of The Coral Triangle From Fossils
Scientists trying to predict the reason behind the resilience of the corals in the Coral Triangle have gone back to a much earlier period of the history of the planet. Researchers have concentrated more on living creatures and have largely ignored fossils.
Marine scientist Dr. Nadia Santodomingo worked on numerous samples collected from eastern Borneo and preserved in an EU-funded museum. Paleontologists had earlier discovered that the region was highly diverse even 20 million years earlier.
Scientists hope to go back even further to go deep in to understand when and how life began. By again examining when and how the Coral Triangle began to diversify, researchers hope they can get to know how the region continues to support such diverse forms of plants and animals.
This research on corals will also help determine the response of the corals to change in the environment. This includes periods in the history of the planet that was much warmer than now, but comparable to the temperatures that we can expect in a few decades from now.
This research on fossils collected from the Coral Triangle will also help scientists to understand which region of the planet will thrive in the future and which will have to be protected to save it from the ravages of global warming.
Corals In The Coral Triangle Are More Protected
The clear blue waters of the tropics are home to plenty of coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef. But hidden in the dark and muddy waters of the Coral Triangle are a much more diverse variety of these unique life forms.
This region in Southeast Asia is home to mountains that are active volcanoes and also changing weather conditions. These loose sediments lying on the bottom of the ocean creating murky waters that don’t allow light and heat to seep through easily to the bottom.
Researchers believe that these mud-obscured reefs can withstand climate change much better than their counterparts in clear tropical waters.
Researchers believe that not much time and effort is devoted to protecting these reefs in the Coral Triangle. While the clear water corals have been hit hard by bleaching due to warming waters, these corals hidden in the murky waters of the Coral Triangle have managed to stay intact.
Two-thirds of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef were destroyed within the past few years. But the corals of the Coral Triangle that are under constant sediment cover appear to be more resilient.
This could be due to the dark waters that block sunlight and thus lessen the stress caused by bleaching, mostly set off by high temperatures. Corals might be able to easily change the way they procure their energy.
Scientists are also keen to know and are studying if corals from muddy waters and clean waters can be interchanged to live in the other’s habitat. The aim is to study if the sturdier corals of the Coral Triangle can be re-proliferated in tropical waters such as the Great Barrier Reef which has undergone extensive damage due to bleaching.
Scientists are trying to determine if coral species were found in both habitats in the past. By doing this and matching data acquired from the past with modern records, they hope to reconstruct the complete history of the growth of corals in the Coral Triangle.
Benefiting From The Rich Biodiversity Of The Coral Triangle
Close to a quarter of the human population live along the chain of islands in the region that comprise the Coral Triangle. The total number of people living in the region is around 360 million. 100 million of them are directly dependent on marine lifeforms for their sustenance. One-third of the people of this region rely directly on marine food as their main source of nourishment.
The presence of such a healthy reef as the Coral Triangle also has numerous benefits other than food. Reefs are a natural barrier against typhoons, tsunamis, and storm surge. Studies have shown that the coastal region would suffer extensive damage in the absence of coral reefs to protect the shoreline.
Countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia would incur severe losses due to flooding, with even a triple-fold increase in flood-related damages. The reefs can save around $400 million for these countries if the coral reefs continue to exist.
The reefs of the Coral Triangle also have an incredible potential for attracting tourists to the regions and provide valuable foreign exchange to the economy of the region.
Threats To The Coral Triangle
But these incredible reefs and marine biodiversity of the region are not immune to the ravages of humans. the prolific ecosystem is under grave threat from human activity. The destruction of habitat through over-exploitation for its rich marine resources has threatened the coral reefs across the world. There is also destruction due to pollution and climate change.
The greatest direct physical damage to the reefs is caused by the adoption of poor practices of fishing. Locals tend to overfish, and drag nets over the fragile corals, thus damaging them.
The presence of large predators is vital to the survival of the coral reefs in the region. Groupers and sharks are a vital link in the chain as they eliminate fish that feed on corals. The hunting of such large fish varieties, the number of these destructive species of fish go up alarmingly. This allows these destructive species of fish to thrive, thereby endangering the corals.
The ruin of the local fishing industry due to this imbalance will affect the countries of this region and ultimately affect the biodiversity of the region. These communities are dependent almost exclusively on marine life for their food and any change in the system will have catastrophic effects.
Another threat that this fragile ecosystem of the Coral Triangle region faces is pollution. Microplastics, that cover long distances, end up in the body of the fish species and end up on our plate. The existence of these plastic micro-particles and larger pieces has threatened the very existence of fish in the region.
Plastics have also been found to act as vectors by helping the spread of diseases. Plastics have been responsible for contagions such as the white syndrome that afflict healthy corals.
Climate change has also affected coral reefs around the planet. While the Great Barrier Reef has been extensively damaged, the reefs in the Coral Triangle area have also been affected, though not to that extent.
But the rising temperatures of the water will stress and eject the algae that exist symbiotically inside the corals. This will cause the corals to become bleached and colorless. They will die out as they become incapable of feeding themselves.
The acidification of the oceans is another threat to the Coral Triangle. It will lead to an increase in carbon dioxide in water. The skeletons of calcium carbonate that house the reef will dissolve as they are unable to tolerate the high acidity in the oceans.
The only hope is that the Coral Triangle is much more resilient to outside influences such as climate change. As it is protected to some extent, there is hope that the Coral Triangle will be able to withstand the ravages of change.