Coral Imposter Removed From Endangered List

A coral species on the Endangered Species Act list isn’t the species everyone thought it was — and now, five years later, the jig is up.

Several starlet corals (Siderastrea siderea). (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0)

(CN) — Thrust into the limelight by a botched biology experiment, a little-known coral species considered endangered is on the verge of vanishing. But unlike actually endangered species, this creature’s pending demise isn’t the result of climate change or ocean acidification — it’s a simple case of mistaken identity.

That’s why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday proposed the erasure of Siderastrea glynni not only from the federal Endangered Species Act, but as a species in general.

Decades after being first discovered near Panama, NOAA researchers now conclude the stony coral was planted during a science experiment and is actually the Caribbean species known as Siderastrea siderea.

“We are proposing to remove S. glynni from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Species because the new genetic and morphological data evaluated and interpreted in the context of the best available data indicate that the listed entity is a junior synonym of S. siderea and does not meet the statutory definition of a species,” NOAA writes in a proposal now published in the Federal Register.  

At the behest of the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, federal agencies began researching the condition of the species in 2013. Two years later, S. glynni and two other coral species were added to what’s roundly considered the gold standard of conservation law, the 1973 Endangered Species Act.   

Though genetic similarities were noted between the apparent new species and its counterpart in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, NOAA determined S. glynni was a valid species — and at high risk of extinction.

“Based on the lack of known populations in the wild, a small captive population in a single location, low growth rate and genetic diversity, and potential increased threats from El Niño, climate change, disease and other development and habitat degradation should it be reintroduced to Panama, extinction risk for this species was assessed to be high,” NOAA concluded in 2015.

But now armed with more information, scientists are doing some second-guessing.  

While conducting a so-called five-year review of the listing, NOAA evaluated new taxonomic studies that found S. glynni is a genetic match to S. siderea. Further sounding the alarm, one study concluded “almost certainly” the coral was intentionally introduced to the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Prior to the colony found at Uraba Island in the Panama Gulf, Siderastrea species were only known to exist in the western Pacific and tropical Atlantic.

Meanwhile another study was able to find the culprit: an experiment conducted at Uraba Island in the early 1980s.

Biologists introduced S. siderea to the surrounding reef and the species regenerated and attached to blocks deposited at the beginning of the experiment. When biologists wrapped up two years later, the blocks were left in the reef — meaning the five colonies found later were indeed transplants and not a new species.

For now, S. glynni remains a threatened species under U.S. law, but it’s clear the coral colonies’ Caribbean vacation is sunsetting.  

“After reviewing the best available information, we agree that S. glynni is a synonym of S. siderea and not a separate taxonomic species or subspecies. It cannot qualify as a distinct population segment (DPS) under the statutory definition of a species because DPSs can be identified only for vertebrate fish or wildlife,” NOAA said in Tuesday’s proposal.

The proposed delisting is now published on the register, with a public comment period slated to close on July 6.

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