Coral Reefs

Page 42

It is also known that during the last fifty-one years, the eastern channel into the lagoon has neither become narrower, nor decreased in depth; and as there are numerous small knolls of living coral within it, some change might have been anticipated. Moreover, as the whole reef round the lagoon of this atoll has been converted into land--an unparalleled case, I believe, in an atoll of such large size,--and as the strip of land is for considerable spaces more than half a mile wide--also a very unusual circumstance,--we have the best possible evidence, that Diego Garcia has remained at its present level for a very long period. With this fact, and with the knowledge that no sensible change has taken place during eighty years in the coral-knolls, and considering that every single reef has reached the surface in other atolls, which do not present the smallest appearance of being older than Diego Garcia and Peros Banhos, and which are placed under the same external conditions with them, one is led to conclude that these submerged reefs, although covered with luxuriant coral, have no tendency to grow upwards, and that they would remain at their present levels for an almost indefinite period.

From the number of these knolls, from their position, size, and form, many of them being only one or two hundred yards across, with a rounded outline, and precipitous sides,--it is indisputable that they have been formed by the growth of coral; and this makes the case much more remarkable. In Peros Banhos and in the Great Chagos Bank, some of these almost columnar masses are 200 feet high, and their summits lie only from two to eight fathoms beneath the surface; therefore, a small proportional amount more of growth would cause them to attain the surface, like those numerous knolls, which rise from an equally great depth within the Maldiva atolls. We can hardly suppose that time has been wanting for the upward growth of the coral, whilst in Diego Garcia, the broad annular strip of land, formed by the continued accumulation of detritus, shows how long this atoll has remained at its present level. We must look to some other cause than the rate of growth; and I suspect it will be found in the reefs being formed of different species of corals, adapted to live at different depths.

The Great Chagos Bank is situated in the centre of the Chagos Group, and the Pitt and Speaker Banks at its two extreme points. These banks resemble atolls, except in their external rim being about eight fathoms submerged, and in being formed of dead rock, with very little living coral on it: a portion nine miles long of the annular reef of Peros Banhos atoll is in the same condition. These facts, as will hereafter be shown, render it very probable that the whole group at some former period subsided seven or eight fathoms; and that the coral perished on the outer margin of those atolls which are now submerged, but that it continued alive, and grew up to the surface on those which are now perfect. If these atolls did subside, and if from the suddenness of the movement or from any other cause, those corals which are better adapted to live at a certain depth than at the surface, once got possession of the knolls, supplanting the former occupants, they would exert little or no tendency to grow upwards. To illustrate this, I may observe, that if the corals of the upper zone on the outer edge of Keeling atoll were to perish, it is improbable that those of the lower zone would grow to the surface, and thus become exposed to conditions for which they do not appear to be adapted. The conjecture, that the corals on the submerged knolls within the Chagos atolls have analogous habits with those of the lower zone outside Keeling atoll, receives some support from a remark by Captain Moresby, namely, that they have a different appearance from those on the reefs in the Maldiva atolls, which, as we have seen, all rise to the surface: he compares the kind of difference to that of the vegetation under different climates. I have entered at considerable length into this case, although unable to throw much light on it, in order to show that an equal tendency to upward growth ought not to be attributed to all coral-reefs,--to those situated at different depths,--to those forming the ring of an atoll or those on the knolls within a lagoon,--to those in one area and those in another.

Charles Darwin

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