Coral Reefs

Page 66

The corals which lived in the lagoon-reefs at each successive level, would be preserved upright, and they would consist of many kinds, generally much branched. In this part, however, a very large proportion of the rock (and in some cases nearly all of it) would be formed of sedimentary matter, either in an excessively fine, or in a moderately coarse state, and with the particles almost blended together. The conglomerate which was formed of rounded pieces of the branched corals, on the shores of the lagoon, would differ from that formed on the islets and derived from the outer coast; yet both might have accumulated very near each other. I have seen a conglomerate limestone from Devonshire like a conglomerate now forming on the shores of the Maldiva atolls. The stratification taken as a whole, would be horizontal; but the conglomerate beds resting on the exterior reef, and the beds of sandstone on the shores of the lagoon (and no doubt on the external flanks) would probably be divided (as at Keeling atoll and at Mauritius) by numerous layers dipping at considerable angles in different directions. The calcareous sandstone and coral-rock would almost necessarily contain innumerable shells, echini, and the bones of fish, turtle, and perhaps of birds; possibly, also, the bones of small saurians, as these animals find their way to the islands far remote from any continent. The large shells of some species of Tridacna would be found vertically imbedded in the solid rock, in the position in which they lived. We might expect also to find a mixture of the remains of pelagic and littoral animals in the strata formed in the lagoon, for pumice and the seeds of plants are floated from distant countries into the lagoons of many atolls: on the outer coast of Keeling atoll, near the mouth of the lagoon, the case of a pelagic Pteropodous animal was brought up on the arming of the sounding lead. All the loose blocks of coral on Keeling atoll were burrowed by vermiform animals; and as every cavity, no doubt, ultimately becomes filled with spathose limestone, slabs of the rock taken from a considerable depth, would, if polished, probably exhibit the excavations of such burrowing animals. The conglomerate and fine-grained beds of coral-rock would be hard, sonorous, white and composed of nearly pure calcareous matter; in some few parts, judging from the specimens at Keeling atoll, they would probably contain a small quantity of iron. Floating pumice and scoriae, and occasionally stones transported in the root of trees (see my "Journal of Researches," page 549) appear the only sources, through which foreign matter is brought to coral-formations standing in the open ocean. The area over which sediment is transported from coral-reefs must be considerable: Captain Moresby informs me that during the change of monsoons the sea is discoloured to a considerable distance off the Maldiva and Chagos atolls. The sediment of fringing and barrier coral-reefs must be mingled with the mud, which is brought down from the land, and is transported seaward through the breaches, which occur in front of almost every valley. If the atolls of the larger archipelagoes were upraised, the bed of the ocean being converted into land, they would form flat-topped mountains, varying in diameter from a few miles (the smallest atolls being worn away) to sixty miles; and from being horizontally stratified and of similar composition, they would, as Mr. Lyell has remarked, falsely appear as if they had originally been united into one vast continuous mass. Such great strata of coral-rock would rarely be associated with erupted volcanic matter, for this could only take place, as may be inferred from what follows in the next chapter, when the area, in which they were situated, commenced to rise, or at least ceased to subside. During the enormous period necessary to effect an elevation of the kind just alluded to, the surface would necessarily be denuded to a great thickness; hence it is highly improbable that any fringing-reef, or even any barrier-reef, at least of those encircling small islands, would be preserved.

Charles Darwin

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