An article by the Natural History Museum, originally published in 2018, explains how the most diverse place on earth could hold the secrets to protecting huge swathes of the planet's underwater habitats.

The Coral Triangle stretches around six million sq kilometres across Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. This incredible region is home to 30% of the world’s reefs and boasts record-breaking biodiversity. In fact, 75% of the known coral species can be found here, along with 37% of the world's coral reef fish. It is also home to six of the world’s sea turtle species, as well as whales, dolphins and dugongs.

“This part of the world contains the highest diversity of marine species. There are more than 600 reef species, which is ten times the number in the Caribbean Sea.”- Dr. Nadia Santodomingo, Coral Expert, Natural History Museum

She continues, “We need to understand this area fully if we are going to protect the rest of the world's oceans, especially the coral reefs. We need to know why so many species are thriving here, but not in other places.”

Beautiful coral in Menjangan, Bali
Beautiful coral in Menjangan, Bali

The Coral Triangle sits within the Ring of Fire, creating a mountainous, volcanic landscape with dramatic shifts in weather. These conditions can disturb sediment in the water which can restrict sunlight to the coral. Interestingly, within the Coral Triangle, many reefs thrive in these darker and more murky waters - and these particular reefs appear to be more resistant to changing conditions such as warming ocean temperatures. 

Back in 2018, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) gave Santodomingo, and her international team, a grant to spend three years studying these reefs and trying to unlock their secrets. 

National History Museum palaeontologist, Dr Ken Johnson, says, “Nobody really thinks about these reefs, but they might be the ones we really want to protect.” Ken adds, “Corals living under continuous sediment stress seem to be more resilient, as the mud may block light, which in turn alleviates bleaching stress induced by high temperatures. The corals might also be able to change how they get their energy more easily.”

The team wants to know whether the muddy-water corals could be used to re-propagate the clear-water reefs that have been bleached, while Dr Natalie Cooper, a Museum researcher and expert on macroevolution, is examining whether either coral species have been found in both habitats in the past.

By piecing together data and matching fossilised corals to their modern equivalents, the team hopes to reconstruct the entire history of reefs in the Coral Triangle.

Johnson says, “In our previous research, we found that this area had very high biodiversity even 20 million years ago. To understand when life really began to bloom here, we need to go back even further in time, and that's one thing we hope to do in our upcoming project.”

By identifying when, and possibly how, the Coral Triangle began to diversify, the team hopes to find clues to the resistance of its reefs. Discovering how these reefs have fared during temperature changes in the past, for example, could provide insight into how corals in other parts of the world might cope in years to come.