Soft corals are key building blocks of reefs

Scientists have long believed that soft corals, one of the many endangered elements of marine life, are only minor contributors to the structure of coral reefs.

But a new research has revealed that soft corals, like stony corals, are one of the central building blocks of a reef.

A new in-depth analysis of reefs in the South China Sea has revealed that massive parts of the reefs are actually made from cemented microscopic skeletal elements of soft corals termed sclerites.

The finding from the joint research by Tel Aviv University, the Academia Sinica, the National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan and National Taiwan University challenges conventional knowledge about soft corals and makes their conservation a priority.

Like whales, dolphins, and stony corals, soft corals are a critically important component of the marine environment, said Prof. Yehuda Benayahu of TAU’s Department of Zoology at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences.

In the reefs of Kenting National Park, located in South Taiwan, the researchers discovered that large structures originally believed to be comprised of stony corals were actually deposits of sclerites that been cemented to each other by calcium carbonate over time.

Soft corals are integral throughout the reef ecosystem and provide a home for creatures such as fish, snails, algae and many others.

Outside of the marine environment, soft corals also work to protect our human habitat.

Boulders and reef structures made of cemented soft coral sclerites that form near shores act as natural wave breakers, protecting land against erosion by the sea or ocean during typhoons or cyclones, added Prof. Benayahu

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The finding was published in the journal Coral Reefs.

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