Mysterious Coral Disease Strikes Hawaiian Island

First Posted: Dec 23, 2012 05:50 PM EST

An unusual epidemic of coral disease has been killing a large number of corals on the north shore of the Hawaiian island, Kunai, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Examination of the diseased areas, called lesions, suggests a mysterious cyanobacterial infection. Known for causing blooms in freshwater lakes, some species of Cyanobacteria, a type of blue-green algae, produce toxins that can sicken aquatic life, animals and even humans. However, the researchers said the current outbreak appear limited to corals.

The coral disease outbreak is said to be the first such cynobacterial infection documented in Hawaii on such a large scale. The university researchers are collaborating with USGS scientists to identify the cause of infection and what is promoting the outbreak.

"An unusually large amount of sediment is present on two affected reefs, and this is known to adversely affect corals in other areas. However, what role sediment or other land based pollution has in driving this disease remains unclear," USGS said in a release.

Climate Change linked to Outbreak?

Climate change has adversely affected the coral reefs of Hawaii and it's likely that like other possible causes such as land-based pollution, climate change could also be responsible for the coral disease outbreak.

"Wildlife disease outbreaks are indicators that something is awry in the environment. Understanding causes of disease and what drives those causes is important because this information helps management agencies make informed decisions to prevent further spread of the disease or minimize impact of disease. Understanding the role and causes of disease in corals and their prevention may contribute to prevention of additional outbreaks and aid in their recovery."

Coral reefs around the world support over one million species of plants and animals. They are important both environmentally and economically.

"Coral reefs are important to Hawaii's underwater environments and the financial well-being of its tourism industry. Like it or not, ecosystem health is closely intertwined with human and animal health," said USGS scientist Thierry Work.

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