Coral Reefs

Page 41

In the vegetable kingdom every different station has its peculiar group of plants, and similar relations appear to prevail with corals. We have already described the great difference between the corals within the lagoon of an atoll and those on its outer margin. The corals, also, on the margin of Keeling Island occurred in zones; thus the Porites and Millepora complanata grow to a large size only where they are washed by a heavy sea, and are killed by a short exposure to the air; whereas, three species of Nullipora also live amidst the breakers, but are able to survive uncovered for a part of each tide; at greater depths, a strong Madrepora and Millepora alcicornis are the commonest kinds, the former appearing to be confined to this part, beneath the zone of massive corals, minute encrusting corallines and other organic bodies live. If we compare the external margin of the reef at Keeling atoll with that on the leeward side of Mauritius, which are very differently circumstanced, we shall find a corresponding difference in the appearance of the corals. At the latter place, the genus Madrepora is preponderant over every other kind, and beneath the zone of massive corals there are large beds of Seriatopora. There is also a marked difference, according to Captain Moresby (Captain Moresby on the Northern Maldiva atolls, "Geographical Journal", volume v., page 401.), between the great branching corals of the Red Sea, and those on the reefs of the Maldiva atolls.

These facts, which in themselves are deserving of notice, bear, perhaps, not very remotely, on a remarkable circumstance which has been pointed out to me by Captain Moresby, namely, that with very few exceptions, none of the coral-knolls within the lagoons of Peros Banhos, Diego Garcia, and the Great Chagos Bank (all situated in the Chagos group), rise to the surface of the water; whereas all those, with equally few exceptions, within Solomon and Egmont atolls in the same group, and likewise within the large southern Maldiva atolls, reach the surface. I make these statements, after having examined the charts of each atoll. In the lagoon of Peros Banhos, which is nearly twenty miles across, there is only one single reef which rises to the surface; in Diego Garcia there are seven, but several of these lie close to the margin of the lagoon, and need scarcely have been reckoned; in the Great Chagos Bank there is not one. On the other hand, in the lagoons of some of the great southern Maldiva atolls, although thickly studded with reefs, every one without exception rises to the surface; and on an average there are less than two submerged reefs in each atoll; in the northern atolls, however, the submerged lagoon-reefs are not quite so rare. The submerged reefs in the Chagos atolls generally have from one to seven fathoms water on them, but some have from seven to ten. Most of them are small with very steep sides (Some of these statements were not communicated to me verbally by Captain Moresby, but are taken from the MS. account before alluded to, of the Chagos Group.); at Peros Banhos they rise from a depth of about thirty fathoms, and some of them in the Great Chagos Bank from above forty fathoms; they are covered, Captain Moresby informs me, with living and healthy coral, two and three feet high, consisting of several species. Why then have not these lagoon-reefs reached the surface, like the innumerable ones in the atolls above named? If we attempt to assign any difference in their external conditions, as the cause of this diversity, we are at once baffled. The lagoon of Diego Garcia is not deep, and is almost wholly surrounded by its reef; Peros Banhos is very deep, much larger, with many wide passages communicating with the open sea. On the other hand, of those atolls, in which all or nearly all the lagoon-reefs have reached the surface, some are small, others large, some shallow, others deep, some well-enclosed, and others open.

Captain Moresby informs me that he has seen a French chart of Diego Garcia made eighty years before his survey, and apparently very accurate; and from it he infers, that during this interval there has not been the smallest change in the depth on any of the knolls within the lagoon.

Charles Darwin

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