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“Coral Formations”


I HAVE read with great interest the article on coral formations in your last number (p. 393), by Capt. Wharton. It is not because I wish to claim to have anticipitated the views which he gives as to the formation of atoll lagoons and barrier reef lagoons that I am writing to state that at the very date of the publication of Capt. Wharton's article I was engaged in writing a paper on coral formations, based upon a study of living corals at Diego Garcia, and on a consideration of the great submerged atolls known as the Great Chagos Bank and the Pitt and Centurion Banks, situated north and west of that island, in which I arrive at conclusions nearly identical with his. It has seemed to me, as it has to him, that the solution of dead coral rock in the interior of a reef does not sufficiently account for the formation of lagoons, and that the true cause of the atoll and barrier lagoons surrounded either by a reef which is awash, or by a strip of low land, lies in the peculiarly favourable conditions for coral growth present on the steep external slopes of the reef. In Diego Garcia I observed that although the shore reefs are for the most part covered with 1 or 2 feet of water, even at the lowest spring tides, yet their flat surfaces are nearly invariably barren of growing coral. Just at their edges, however, and on the steep external slopes beyond the edges, reef-building corals grow luxuriantly. According to Capt. Moresby, quoted by Mr. Darwin in his book on “Coral Reefs,” the flat surface of the rim of the Great Chagos Bank is barren of living corals, just as are the shore reefs of the neighbouring atoll of Diego Garcia; but the lagoon contains many knolls abundantly covered with living coral, and there is reason to think that living coral also occurs on the external slopes at Diego Garcia. Unlike Capt. Wharton, I do not consider the favourable conditions for coral growth on the external slopes to be connected with a better food supply, for this would be at variance with the existence of thriving coral patches within the lagoon, which, as I have seen at Diego Garcia, bear no relation to the lagoon mouths, through which food-bearing currents might be supposed to enter to the interior. Indeed, at the last-named atoll some of the most luxuriant coral patches are found at the south end of the lagoon, furthest away from the lagoon outlet. The favourable conditions are due, I believe, to the action of currents on coral growth. I noticed at Diego Garcia, and Dr. Hickson has made similar observations in the reefs near North Celebes, that corals do not thrive where they are subjected to the direct action of a strong current, nor do they grow in still water, where they are killed by the sand deposited upon them, but they flourish in places where a moderate current flows over them, not so strong as to dash them to pieces, but strong enough to prevent deposition of sand. Such conditions are found everywhere on the external slopes. At the side where a current impinges directly on a slope, the deeper parts of the current strike the slope first, and are in part thrown upwards over the sloping surface, thus moderating the direct force of the more superficial part of the same current. The main part of the current flows tangentially around the obstruction, and thus affords favourable conditions at the sides of the atoll or reef, and finally, on the side furthest from the current, the back-wash causes weak superficial currents which are also highly favourable to coral growth. Thus the coral grows to the greatest advantage around the periphery of a reef, and, as Capt. Wharton says, a ring-shaped reef is the result, and no theory of solution is required to explain the central depression.

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BOURNE, G. “Coral Formations”. Nature 37, 414–415 (1888).

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