Researchers have discovered coral beds off the coast of Hawaii that are more than 4,200 years old, making them among the oldest living creatures on Earth.
The team was directed by Brendan Roark of Texas A&M's College of Geosciences and included colleagues from the University of California-Santa Cruz and Australian National University in Canberra.
Two different species of coral beds were documented using carbon dating methods, Roark says, with both being much older than previously believed. One species – Leiopathes – is now confirmed to be about 4,265 years old, while the other species, Gerardia, is believed to be about 2,742 years old.
This Hawaiian coral is more than 4,200 years old.(Photo Credit: Texas A&M University)
The coral beds were discovered in about 1,200 feet of water using submersible vehicles. One of the beds covers several hundred square feet, Roark notes.
"The beds are quite large, but sadly, not in very good shape," Roark explains.
"The color of the coral makes them highly sought-after for making jewelry, and the Gerardia coral especially is a beautiful gold color. There are laws protecting the beds, but much of the harvesting still continues.
"Also, the beds are threatened by local fishermen in the area. You could compare the situation to that of the Amazon rain forest areas, where huge tracts of land are disappearing because of man-made activities. The same is true of these coral beds."
The age of the coral would rank them among the oldest living creatures in continuous existence, Roark adds. Scientists know that some of the bristlecone pine trees in Northern California are also more than 4,000 years old.
It was previously believed that such coral beds were no more than a few hundred years old, he says, "so to find out that they are thousands of years old is a very exciting time for us."
Roark said the coral beds could keep researchers busy for decades.
"There are whole sets of ecology and biology questions that these coral beds raise," he points out.
"It's a case where one question leads to another and another, and we're still searching for some answers. The extreme age of the coral beds and their very slow growth, combined with the high levels of biodiversity surrounding the coral beds, means that protecting these reefs from further damage has to be a top priority."
The project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation.