Secret Garden of Corals Discovered in Virgin Islands

coral mangrove photo

Image Credit: Caroline Rogers/USGS

A scientists snorkeling in the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands made an unexpected discovery -- a mangrove harboring a rich and vibrant coral reef. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), as many as 30 different species of coral are living happily among the roots in a "secret garden" of sort. Such a well protected and untouched coral ecosystem is a rare find in the Virgin Islands. Caroline Rogers, a scientist with USGS made the discovery last year: "The discovery of all of the corals in the mangroves is very exciting. Within Hurricane Hole, there are at least 30 coral species, some of which are rarely seen even in the nearby coral reefs," she said.

"The diversity is remarkable and is not unique to the corals. We're seeing great diversity in the sponges as well. Many of the sponges are more typically found in coral reefs than in mangroves," said Rogers.

coral mangrove photo

Left: Prop roots of the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) tree create thickets that harbor a wide variety of creatures both above and below the water; Right: Pale-blue sponges and multiple coral colonies (Agaricia agaricites) grow on mangrove prop roots. Image Credit: Caroline Rogers/USGS
Our Amazing Planet writes, "The discovery of a hidden stash of apparently healthy corals, made in March 2009, is particularly surprising because in 2005, seawater temperatures in the Virgin Islands skyrocketed to the highest on record, and a bout of coral bleaching whitened and weakened many of the coral colonies in the area."

Coral bleaching and the impact of warming ocean temperatures on reefs is a serious problem. Last summer proved to be especially hard on corals in the Carribean, which equaled the heat experienced in 2005. Yet somehow, the corals in the mangroves are doing better than the corals on the reefs. It isn't clear exactly why the corals found in the mangroves such as Hurricane Hole are so diverse and healthy compared to other corals in the Virgin Islands. But the fact that they are is something researchers want to study more of in hopes of finding keys for saving reefs elsewhere.

USGS explains the name Hurricane Hole, stating it "describes the protective function the mangrove-lined bays provide during hurricanes. When a hurricane threatens the area, boaters seek shelter in the protected waters. Sometimes in the past, before the monument was established, they even tied their boats directly to the mangrove tree trunks and roots."

While it isn't a practice that is good for the mangroves, which can be damaged by the boats and ropes, the name does have historical significance, and a pretty nice ring to it.

Check out a bunch of gorgeous photos from Caroline Rogers of the tucked-away coral haven she discovered, and check out this video below of the mangroves of Hurricane Hole.

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