Enigmatic coral recorded for first time in Malta Very likely that only recently introduced to Malta

Researchers from the Marine Ecology Research Group at the Department of Biology of the University of Malta have documented the presence of stony coral in Maltese harbours for the first time, observing sizeable colonies on jetties.

“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.

A large, yellow coral is unlikely to have gone unnoticed if it were present here for a long time

“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,” the University said.

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 (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.

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.

Times of Malta

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