North America’s Most Endangered Animals
Snails, marmots, condors and coral reef are among the many species on the continent that are close to extinction
- By Megan Gambino, Erin Wayman and Sarah Zielinski
- Smithsonian.com, May 19, 2011
(Frans Lanting / Corbis)
In the past 30 years, the Caribbean has lost 80 percent of its corals. Among the hardest hit is staghorn coral, a species responsible for building much of the reef in shallow water around the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the Caribbean islands and Venezuela. Since 1980, populations of the branching coral have declined by as much as 98 percent in some areas.
The threats to staghorn coral are the same affecting corals worldwide. Poor water quality, resulting from the runoff of pollutants from land, breeds coral diseases. (Staghorn corals have been plagued by white band disease.) Overfishing has removed important predators and herbivores, leaving more small fish and snails to prey on corals, and more algae and seaweed to smother them. The rampant burning of fossil fuels has resulted in the ocean absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Water temperatures have increased by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, and the ocean’s acidity has increased by 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As a result, corals are bleaching and struggling to deposit calcium-carbonate exoskeletons that form reefs. Nancy Knowlton, a coral reef biologist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, compares the dissolving of the exoskeletons to that of teeth in Coca-Cola.
On one of Knowlton’s annual trips to Bocas del Toro, Panama, to study a mass coral spawning in 2009, she shared her bleak forecast: “If we don’t do something, we could lose coral reefs as we know them by 2050.” – MG