Our colorful reefs here in the Dutch Caribbean are known worldwide for their high level of biodiversity, notably the impressive number of different coral species they harbor. Several of these coral species have an especially important place in the reef community. Our species of the week, Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata), is one of the most important reef-building corals within the entire Caribbean region.
This large branching coral often dominates reef communities: not only does it grow very fast at a rate of 5 to 10 cm (~2 to 3.9″) a year, but it is also very competitive and extends over other coral colonies. Elkorn Coral is named after its large, thick branches that resemble elk antlers; these branches are an important habitat for many reef species.
Colonies of Elkhorn Coral grow through a process known as fragmentation: when a branch breaks off, it attaches itself to the substrate and forms a new colony. Individual colonies also reproduce sexually once a year, during which they release millions of gametes into the water column (known as spawning).
Once the most abundant coral species in the Caribbean region, the population of Elkhorn Coral has now been reduced by over 90% and is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Elkhorn Coral colonies have suffered heavily from a variety of threats, notably white-band disease, bleaching and sedimentation. Many steps have been taken within the Dutch Caribbean to protect this and other valuable coral species. Marine Parks, for example, have been created on five of our six islands to reduce threats to these fragile animals so that their population can recover. Regular monitoring activities are also taking place so that park managers can better target conservation efforts and gain valuable insight into what protection measures are most effective.
Related Stories: Coral restoration on Curaçao and Bonaire