Magazine article Science News

Film Solves Mystery of Sleepwalking Coral

Magazine article Science News

Film Solves Mystery of Sleepwalking Coral

Article excerpt

Was coral ecologist John R. M. Chisholm losing his mind? Lumps of coral, with the ambulatory power of your average rock, somehow kept changing places in his aquarium overnight.

Chisholm, of Centre Scientifique de Monaco in Monaco, can now rest assured of his sanity. After a series of frustations, Chisholm and filmmaker Russell Kelley have finally captured infrared images of a bootlace-size eunicid worm poking out of a rock, yanking lumps of coral back to its fortress, and gluing them in place.

"This is the first time to our knowledge anybody's seen this," Chisholm says. He and Kelley, from Watermark Films in Townsville, Australia, describe the worm's feat in the Jan. 11 NATURE.

Worm work could play a major role in building coral reefs, particularly the puzzling ones on soft sediment, Chisholm suggests. Scientists haven't known how creatures starting such structures avoid being buried.

Now, Chisholm speculates that worms assemble coral bits and whatever hard materials they can find and thus provide more stability in an unsteady world. That relative solidity increases the odds that fish larvae seek shelter there, and their wastes fuel coral growth. With the structure's increasing stability, chances rise that waterborne juvenile corals will join the heap, further stabilizing it. "You get a chain reaction," Chisholm sums up.

Reef specialist John Pandolfi at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., welcomes the new study: "I think it's great. …

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