Corals switch skeleton material as seawater changes

Leopards may not be able to change their spots, but corals can change their skeletons, building them out of different minerals depending on the chemical composition of the seawater around them.

That's the startling conclusion drawn by a Johns Hopkins University marine geologist, writing in the July issue of the journal Geology.

Postdoctoral fellow Justin Ries and his collaborators say this is the first known case of an animal altering the composition of its skeleton in response to change in its physical environment. The aquatic animal's sensitivity to such changes poses questions about its evolutionary history, as well as the future of the ecologically important coral reefs that it builds, Ries said, especially at a time when seawater is changing in response to global warming and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A 2005 Ph.D. graduate of Johns Hopkins, Ries collaborated on the research with his dissertation advisors, Steven M. Stanley (now of the University of Hawaii) and Lawrence A. Hardie, professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins.

Reefs are large underwater structures of coral skeletons, made from calcium carbonate secreted by generation after generation of tiny coral polyps over sometimes millions of years of coral growth in the same location. The team showed that corals can switch from using aragonite to another mineral, calcite, in making the calcium carbonate. They make that switch in response to decreases in the ratio of magnesium to calcium in seawater, Ries said. That ratio has changed dramatically over geologic time.

"This is intriguing because, until now, it was generally believed that the skeletal composition of corals was fixed," he said.

Ries spent two months growing three species of modern scleractinian corals (the major reef-building corals in today's seas) in seawater formulated at six different chemical ratios th

Contact: Lisa DeNike
Johns Hopkins University

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