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Top Story

Previously overlooked 'coral ticks' weaken degraded reefs

A previously overlooked predator -- a thumbnail-sized snail -- could be increasing the pressure on coral reefs already weakened by the effects of overfishing, rising ocean temperatures, pollution and other threats. The snail attacks a key coral species that may offer the last hope for bringing back degraded Pacific reefs. The snail damages coral by sucking fluid from it like a tick, and it may be ignored because it camouflages itself on reefs and doesn't move around to leave obvious signs of its attack. In experiments done directly on Fiji Island reefs, scientists quantified the impact of the snails, and found that snail attacks could reduce the growth of Porites cylindrica coral by as much as 43 percent in less than a month. In areas protected from fishing, the researchers never found more than five of the creatures -- whose scientific name is Coralliophila violacea -- on a single coral colony. But on degraded reefs where fishing was permitted, they found hundreds of the snails on some declining coral colonies, as much as 35 times more than colonies in the protected areas. The Porites coral often provides the foundation for reefs, and is considered one of the most hardy species because it is less susceptible to disease, less attractive to crown-of-thorns sea stars and more resistant to damage from seaweeds. For those reasons, researchers believe it may provide a way for reefs to recover if conditions improve.

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