Coral Reefs

Page 45

and viii.) The islets, also, on Keeling atoll, it has been shown, have increased in length, and since the construction of an old chart, several of them have become united into one long islet; but in this case, and in that of Matilda atoll, we have no proof, and can only infer as probable, that the reef, that is the foundation of the islets, has increased as well as the islets themselves.

After these considerations, I attach little importance, as indicating the ordinary and still less the possible rate of OUTWARD growth of coral-reefs, to the fact that certain reefs in the Red Sea have not increased during a long interval of time; or to other such cases, as that of Ouluthy atoll in the Caroline group, where every islet, described a thousand years before by Cantova was found in the same state by Lutke (F. Lutke's "Voyage autour du Monde." In the group Elato, however, it appears that what is now the islet Falipi, is called in Cantova's Chart, the Banc de Falipi. It is not stated whether this has been caused by the growth of coral, or by the accumulation of sand.),--without it could be shown that, in these cases, the conditions were favourable to the vigorous and unopposed growth of the corals living in the different zones of depth, and that a proper basis for the extent of the reef was present. The former conditions must depend on many contingencies, and in the deep oceans where coral formations most abound, a basis within the requisite depth can rarely be present.

Nor do I attach any importance to the fact of certain submerged reefs, as those off Tahiti, or those within Diego Garcia not now being nearer the surface than they were many years ago, as an indication of the rate under favourable circumstances of the UPWARD growth of reefs; after it has been shown, that all the reefs have grown to the surface in some of the Chagos atolls, but that in neighbouring atolls which appear to be of equal antiquity and to be exposed to the same external conditions, every reef remains submerged; for we are almost driven to attribute this to a difference, not in the rate of growth, but in the habits of the corals in the two cases.

In an old-standing reef, the corals, which are so different in kind on different parts of it, are probably all adapted to the stations they occupy, and hold their places, like other organic beings, by a struggle one with another, and with external nature; hence we may infer that their growth would generally be slow, except under peculiarly favourable circumstances. Almost the only natural condition, allowing a quick upward growth of the whole surface of a reef, would be a slow subsidence of the area in which it stood; if, for instance, Keeling atoll were to subside two or three feet, can we doubt that the projecting margin of live coral, about half an inch in thickness, which surrounds the dead upper surfaces of the mounds of Porites, would in this case form a concentric layer over them, and the reef thus increase upwards, instead of, as at present, outwards? The Nulliporae are now encroaching on the Porites and Millepora, but in this case might we not confidently expect that the latter would, in their turn, encroach on the Nulliporae? After a subsidence of this kind, the sea would gain on the islets, and the great fields of dead but upright corals in the lagoon, would be covered by a sheet of clear water; and might we not then expect that these reefs would rise to the surface, as they anciently did when the lagoon was less confined by islets, and as they did within a period of ten years in the schooner-channel, cut by the inhabitants? In one of the Maldiva atolls, a reef, which within a very few years existed as an islet bearing cocoa-nut trees, was found by Lieutenant Prentice "ENTIRELY COVERED WITH LIVE CORAL AND MADREPORE." The natives believe that the islet was washed away by a change in the currents, but if, instead of this, it had quietly subsided, surely every part of the island which offered a solid foundation, would in a like manner have become coated with living coral.

Coral Reefs Page 46

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book