Seen as one among the most important types of endangered coral reefs in the Caribbean, Acropora Palmata – also referred to as Elkhorn coral – is a complex species featuring large, ramified branches that can reach lengths of up to 3 meters.
While the growth rate of this coral is significant, reaching 5-10 cm on average per year, it is estimated that more than 80% of the Elkhorn coral which existed in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean before 1980 has since been entirely destroyed.
Highly Significant for the Caribbean Ecosystem
Normally found in exposed reef crests and reef environments that are situated no deeper than about 20 meters under the surface, Acropora Palmata used to be the dominant shallow water coral species in the Caribbean, as well as the entire area of the Florida Reef Tract.
Because of its size and relatively fast growth based on an asexual process that – while ineffective in the case of diseased population – can assist with the rapid recovery of reefs after storms and other damaging natural catastrophes, this species of coral is one among three of the most important types of coral reefs responsible for inducing reef growth and producing extensive fish habitats in the Caribbean.
The most important role played by Elkhorn coral has been established in regions such as Puerto Rico, Florida and the islands of St. John and St. Thomas, where restoration efforts are currently underway to assist with population re-growth. Other areas where this species can be found also include areas such as the Bahamas and even sections of the region stretching south towards Venezuela.
Endangered Status and Threats
Despite the area of the Caribbean being constantly bombarded with hurricanes and other natural disasters, climate change and the presence of increased sedimentation and disease outbreaks were identified as the main reasons for the decline of Acropora Palmata populations.
The species is significantly susceptible to bleaching and damage incurred from sedimentation, as well as the long term threat of ocean acidification which is known to reduce the skeletal integrity of a number of different coral reef varieties.
Among the diseases known to be a major threat to the species, some of the most notable are white band and black band disease, as well as white pox disease. Also, predators such as coral-eating snails and bearded fireworm species continue to contribute to the coral’s population decline to this day.
While conservation and restoration efforts continue to be funded for improving the status of Acropora Palmata, they have so far only presented mixed results, and attempts to conserve the corals or introduce herbivores to eliminate damaging algae in areas like the Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys have produced limiting success thus far.