Coral reefs give rise to many more new species than other tropical marine habitats, according to a new study.
Scientists used fossil records stretching back 540 million years to work out the evolution rate at reefs.
They report in the journal Science that new species originate 50% faster in coral reefs than in other habitats.
The team says its findings show that the loss of these evolution hotspots could mean “losing an opportunity to create new species” in the future.
Coral reefs harbour a huge number of marine species – they are often likened to rainforests in terms of their biodiversity.
But they also provide a “pump of new marine species”, according to Wolfgang Kiessling the scientist from Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, who led this study.
He and his colleagues examined the fossil record to find the earliest evidence of benthic creatures – animals that live on the seafloor.
These creatures provide a good record of evolution. They remain on the seafloor once they die, and are often fossilised along with some of the remains of their original habitats.
This team of scientists looked for the earliest fossils from each benthic genus, or group of species, in the fossil record.
“We checked when and where each genus first occurred, explained Dr Kiessling. “So for example, if the earliest fossils were 300 million years, we asked: ‘Did it occur in a reef or outside’.”
He and his colleagues had access to a record stretching back to the Cambrian explosion – when the vast majority of complex organisms are believed to have emerged more than 540 million years ago….