Posted on behalf of Marian Turner
Covering less than 1% of the ocean’s floor, coral reefs house around 25% of the ocean’s biodiversity. This diversity, and the ‘services’ reefs provide, are celebrated in the Natural History Museum of London’s exhibition Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea, which opened on 27 March.
The NHM’s collection contains some 100,000 reef specimens dating back to Captain James Cook’s explorations of the Pacific in the eighteenth century. Around 200 are on display, ranging from a spectacular Turbinaria coral that fans out a metre wide to a pickled cuttlefish and a taxidermied giant grouper.
The start of the exhibition is surprisingly sombre. The coral skeletons on display lack the stunning colours of live corals, which come from their symbiotic photosynthetic algae. But these pale scaffoldings also reveal the stark beauty and magnificent diversity of coral forms and clarify their amusing common names: the potato chip, birdsnest and brain corals sit alongside their staghorn, bladed fire and organ pipe cousins.
The exhibition is littered with interconnecting plywood hexagons, mimicking the basic unit of a coral polyp. Displays describe how reefs are home to a vast array of organisms, support the livelihoods of some 500 million people through fisheries and tourism, and provide coastal defences and pharmaceutical lead compounds.
A “virtual dive”, with 180° panels and a joystick, lets viewers drift through panoramas from several reefs such as around Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef, zooming in to see individual animals and out to get a sense of the whole. The images come from the Catlin Seaview Survey, a project sponsored by insurance company (and exhibition partner) Catlin Group Limited that aims to provide a visual snapshot of the world’s reefs. The survey team, which has partnered with marine biologists from the University of Queensland and Google to make the images public, hopes the records will be used to monitor change from coral loss to species invasion, and to help in choosing sites to study in more detail. “We need this baseline to understand the vulnerability of reefs and make management decisions,” says project chief scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.
Around half of the world’s reefs have already been lost to human-driven damage, from agricultural runoff to the coral souvenir trade. Climate change is also upsetting the delicate relationships between corals, their algae and other reef denizens. The exhibition touches on these issues, but without the sense of urgency that Hoegh-Guldberg conveys.
The need for action on protecting coral reefs was driven home at the end of the exhibition when I came face to face with a living reef. Darting fish caught my eye first, then the waving fronds of the corals and anemones. As I got closer, almost everything appeared to be moving.
The 4-tonne aquarium was created in collaboration with London’s Horniman Museum, whose holdings range across natural history and anthropology. Their Project Coral team are attempting to mimic the just-right combination of environmental cues under which corals spawn, in the hope of testing how changing oceans might affect coral reproduction.
The aquarium, complete with some ‘little Nemo’ clownfish, is sure to be a crowd pleaser. I hope it will raise the alarm that it is up to us to prevent more of these glorious landscapes of colour and activity from ending up as ghostly museum displays.
Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea runs at London’s Natural History Museum through 13 September.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.