Coral Reefs

Page 43

The inference, therefore, that one reef could not grow up to the surface within a given time, because another, not known to be covered with the same species of corals, and not known to be placed under conditions exactly the same, has not within the same time reached the surface, is unsound.


The remark made at the close of the last section, naturally leads to this division of our subject, which has not, I think, hitherto been considered under a right point of view. Ehrenberg (Ehrenberg, as before cited, pages 39, 46, and 50.) has stated, that in the Red Sea, the corals only coat other rocks in a layer from one to two feet in thickness, or at most to a fathom and a half; and he disbelieves that, in any case, they form, by their own proper growth, great masses, stratum over stratum. A nearly similar observation has been made by MM. Quoy and Gaimard ("Annales des Sciences Nat." tom. vi., page 28.), with respect to the thickness of some upraised beds of coral, which they examined at Timor and some other places. Ehrenberg (Ehrenberg, ut sup., page 42.) saw certain large massive corals in the Red Sea, which he imagines to be of such vast antiquity, that they might have been beheld by Pharaoh; and according to Mr. Lyell (Lyell's "Principles of Geology," book iii., chapter xviii.) there are certain corals at Bermuda, which are known by tradition, to have been living for centuries. To show how slowly coral-reefs grow upwards, Captain Beechey (Beechey's "Voyage to the Pacific," chapter viii.) has adduced the case of the Dolphin Reef off Tahiti, which has remained at the same depth beneath the surface, namely about two fathoms and a half, for a period of sixty-seven years. There are reefs in the Red Sea, which certainly do not appear (Ehrenberg, ut sup., page 43.) to have increased in dimensions during the last half-century, and from the comparison of old charts with recent surveys, probably not during the last two hundred years. These, and other similar facts, have so strongly impressed many with the belief of the extreme slowness of the growth of corals, that they have even doubted the possibility of islands in the great oceans having been formed by their agency. Others, again, who have not been overwhelmed by this difficulty, have admitted that it would require thousands, and tens of thousands of years, to form a mass, even of inconsiderable thickness; but the subject has not, I believe, been viewed in the proper light.

That masses of considerable thickness have been formed by the growth of coral, may be inferred with certainty from the following facts. In the deep lagoons of Peros Banhos and of the Great Chagos Bank, there are, as already described, small steep-sided knolls covered with living coral. There are similar knolls in the southern Maldiva atolls, some of which, as Captain Moresby assures me, are less than a hundred yards in diameter, and rise to the surface from a depth of between two hundred and fifty and three hundred feet. Considering their number, form, and position, it would be preposterous to suppose that they are based on pinnacles of any rock, not of coral formation; or that sediment could have been heaped up into such small and steep isolated cones. As no kind of living coral grows above the height of a few feet, we are compelled to suppose that these knolls have been formed by the successive growth and death of many individuals,--first one being broken off or killed by some accident, and then another, and one set of species being replaced by another set with different habits, as the reef rose nearer the surface, or as other changes supervened. The spaces between the corals would become filled up with fragments and sand, and such matter would probably soon be consolidated, for we learn from Lieutenant Nelson ("Geological Transactions," volume v., page 113.), that at Bermuda a process of this kind takes place beneath water, without the aid of evaporation. In reefs, also, of the barrier class, we may feel sure, as I have shown, that masses of great thickness have been formed by the growth of the coral; in the case of Vanikoro, judging only from the depth of the moat between the land and the reef, the wall of coral-rock must be at least three hundred feet in vertical thickness.

Charles Darwin

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