Enig­matic co­ral recorded for first time from Malta

The Malta Business Weekly - - FRONT PAGE -

The Mediter­ranean Sea is no­to­ri­ous for in­va­sion by non-na­tive biota, re­sult­ing in an ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of alien species recorded from this sea, in­clud­ing in Mal­tese wa­ters. Nev­er­the­less, when a new species is recorded, it is not al­ways due to a re­cent in­tro­duc­tion: many species are small and in­con­spic­u­ous, and there­fore may have been present for a long while but sim­ply went un­no­ticed. This is less likely to hap­pen with large colour­ful species such as corals, which are more strik­ing and hence more read­ily de­tected, mak­ing the story of Oculina patag­o­nica all the more re­mark­able.

Oculina patag­o­nica is a large stony co­ral, colonies of which can reach more than a me­tre in di­am­e­ter. As its name sug­gests, it was first de­scribed from Ar­gentina ( SW At­lantic); this was back in 1908 and the orig­i­nal de­scrip­tion was based on fos­sil spec­i­mens. For a few decades no liv­ing in­di­vid­u­als of this species could be found. Fast for­ward to 1966 and a liv­ing spec­i­men was fi­nally recorded… but not from Ar­gentina or any­where close! The liv­ing in­di­vid­ual was found in Savona Har­bour, Italy, and since then the co­ral has been ob­served in sev­eral other places in the Mediter­ranean, in­clud­ing Spain, France, Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia, Croa­tia, Greece, Tur­key, Egypt, Le­banon and Is­rael. Re­searchers from the Ma­rine Ecol­ogy Re­search Group at the De­part- ment of Bi­ol­ogy of the Univer­sity of Malta have now also doc­u­mented its pres­ence in Mal­tese har­bours, where size­able colonies were ob­served on jet­ties.

The ori­gin of this co­ral in the Mediter­ranean re­mains enig­matic. No fos­sils of the species are known from the Mediter­ranean, which has been taken to in­di­cate that it is not na­tive in the area and must have been in­tro­duced from some­where else. At the same time, no liv­ing in­di­vid­u­als are known from any­where out­side the Mediter­ranean, and re­cent ge­netic anal­y­sis sug­gested that it may have been present in this sea for much longer than pre­vi­ously thought. In the case of Malta, how­ever, the si­t­u­a­tion is clearer. Given the num­ber of snorkel­ers, divers and other sea users in our seas, a large, yel­low co­ral is un­likely to have gone un­no­ticed if it were present here for a long time, which, to­gether with the fact that it was dis­cov­ered from ar­ti­fi­cial sub­strata in har­bours, points to a re­cent in­tro­duc­tion. Given that this co­ral seems to be act­ing in­va­sively else­where in the Mediter­ranean, the Mal­tese re­searchers are ac­tively mon­i­tor­ing its sta­tus in Mal­tese wa­ters. The Ma­rine Ecol­ogy Re­search Group wel­comes re­ports of any un­usual or new ma­rine or­gan­isms. Please con­tact the group leader, Prof. Pa­trick J. Schem­bri at the De­part­ment of Bi­ol­ogy, Univer­sity of Malta on +356 2340 2272.

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