Coral Reefs

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islet, was floated out. It is a very interesting circumstance, pointed out to us by Mr. Liesk, that this channel, although made less than ten years before our visit, was then, as we saw, almost choked up with living coral, so that fresh excavations would be absolutely necessary to allow another vessel to pass through it.

The sediment from the deepest parts in the lagoon, when wet, appeared chalky, but when dry, like very fine sand. Large soft banks of similar, but even finer grained mud, occur on the S.E. shore of the lagoon, affording a thick growth of a Fucus, on which turtle feed: this mud, although discoloured by vegetable matter, appears from its entire solution in acids to be purely calcareous. I have seen in the Museum of the Geological Society, a similar but more remarkable substance, brought by Lieutenant Nelson from the reefs of Bermuda, which, when shown to several experienced geologists, was mistaken by them for true chalk. On the outside of the reef much sediment must be formed by the action of the surf on the rolled fragments of coral; but in the calm waters of the lagoon, this can take place only in a small degree. There are, however, other and unexpected agents at work here: large shoals of two species of Scarus, one inhabiting the surf outside the reef and the other the lagoon, subsist entirely, as I was assured by Mr. Liesk, the intelligent resident before referred to, by browsing on the living polypifers. I opened several of these fish, which are very numerous and of considerable size, and I found their intestines distended by small pieces of coral, and finely ground calcareous matter. This must daily pass from them as the finest sediment; much also must be produced by the infinitely numerous vermiform and molluscous animals, which make cavities in almost every block of coral. Dr. J. Allan, of Forres, who has enjoyed the best means of observation, informs me in a letter that the Holothuriae (a family of Radiata) subsist on living coral; and the singular structure of bone within the anterior extremity of their bodies, certainly appears well adapted for this purpose. The number of the species of Holothuria, and of the individuals which swarm on every part of these coral-reefs, is extraordinarily great; and many shiploads are annually freighted, as is well-known, for China with the trepang, which is a species of this genus. The amount of coral yearly consumed, and ground down into the finest mud, by these several creatures, and probably by many other kinds, must be immense. These facts are, however, of more importance in another point of view, as showing us that there are living checks to the growth of coral-reefs, and that the almost universal law of "consumed and be consumed," holds good even with the polypifers forming those massive bulwarks, which are able to withstand the force of the open ocean.

Considering that Keeling atoll, like other coral formations, has been entirely formed by the growth of organic beings, and the accumulation of their detritus, one is naturally led to inquire how long it has continued, and how long it is likely to continue, in its present state. Mr. Liesk informed me that he had seen an old chart in which the present long island on the S.E. side was divided by several channels into as many islets; and he assures me that the channels can still be distinguished by the smaller size of the trees on them. On several islets, also, I observed that only young cocoa-nut trees were growing on the extremities; and that older and taller trees rose in regular succession behind them; which shows that these islets have very lately increased in length. In the upper and south-eastern part of the lagoon, I was much surprised by finding an irregular field of at least a mile square of branching corals, still upright, but entirely dead. They consisted of the species already mentioned; they were of a brown colour, and so rotten, that in trying to stand on them I sank halfway up the leg, as if through decayed brushwood. The tops of the branches were barely covered by water at the time of lowest tide.

Coral Reefs Page 15

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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