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- Coral and Coral Reefs - 1/3 -


by Thomas H. Huxley

*[Foonote] A Lecture delivered in Manchester, November 4th, 1970.

THE subject upon which I wish to address you to-night is the structure and origin of Coral and Coral Reefs. Under the head of "coral" there are included two very different things; one of them is that substance which I imagine a great number of us have champed when we were very much younger than we are now,--the common red coral, which is used so much, as you know, for the edification and the delectation of children of tender years, and is also employed for the purposes of ornament for those who are much older, and as some think might know better. The other kind of coral is a very different substance; it may for distinction's sake be called the white coral; it is a material which most assuredly not the hardest-hearted of baby farmers would give to a baby to chew, and it is a substance which is to be seen only in the cabinets of curious persons, or in museums, or, may be, over the mantelpieces of sea-faring men. But although the red coral, as I have mentioned to you, has access to the very best society; and although the white coral is comparatively a despised product, yet in this, as in many other cases, the humbler thing is in reality the greater; the amount of work which is done in the world by the white coral being absolutely infinite compared with that effected by its delicate and pampered namesake. Each of these substances, the white coral and the red, however, has a relationship to the other. They are, in a zoological sense, cousins, each of them being formed by the same kind of animals in what is substantially the same way. Each of these bodies is, in fact, the hard skeleton of a very curious and a very simple animal, more comparable to the bones of such animals as ourselves than to the shells of oysters or creatures of that kind; for it is the hardening of the internal tissue of the creature, of its internal substance, by the deposit in the body of a material which is exceedingly common, not only in fresh but in sea water, and which is specially abundant in those waters which we know as "hard," those waters, for example, which leave a "fur" upon the bottom of a tea-kettle. This "fur" is carbonate of lime, the same sort of substance as limestone and chalk. That material is contained in solution in sea water, and it is out of the sea water in which these coral creatures live that they get the lime which is needed for the forming of their hard skeleton.

But now what manner of creatures are these which form these hard skeletons? I dare say that in these days of keeping aquaria, of locomotion to the sea-side, most of those whom I am addressing may have seen one of those creatures which used to be known as the "sea anemone," receiving that name on account of its general resemblance, in a rough sort of way, to the flower which is known as the "anemone"; but being a thing which lives in the sea, it was qualified as the "sea anemone." Well, then, you must suppose a body shaped like a short cylinder, the top cut off, and in the top a hole rather oval than round. All round this aperture, which is the mouth, imagine that there are placed a number of feelers forming a circle. The cavity of the mouth leads into a sort of stomach, which is very unlike those of the higher animals, in the circumstance that it opens at the lower end into a cavity of the body, and all the digested matter, converted into nourishment, is thus distributed through the rest of the body. That is the general structure of one of these sea anemones. If you touch it it contracts immediately into a heap. It looks at first quite like a flower in the sea, but if you touch it you find that it exhibits all the peculiarities of a living animal; and if anything which can serve as its prey comes near its tentacles, it closes them round it and sucks the material into its stomach and there digests it and turns it to the account of its own body.

These creatures are very voracious, and not at all particular what they seize; and sometimes it may be that they lay hold of a shellfish which is far too big to be packed into that interior cavity, and, of course, in any ordinary animal a proceeding of this kind would give rise to a very severe fit of indigestion. But this is by no means the case in the sea anemone, because when digestive difficulties of this kind arise he gets out of them by splitting himself in two; and then each half builds itself up into a fresh creature, and you have two polypes where there was previously one, and the bone which stuck in the way lying between them! Not only can these creatures multiply in this fashion, but they can multiply by buds. A bud will grow out of the side of the body (I am not speaking of the common sea anemone, but of allied creatures) just like the bud of a plant, and that will fashion itself into a creature just like the parent. There are some of them in which these buds remain connected together, and you will soon see what would be the result of that. If I make a bud grow out here, and another on the opposite side, and each fashions itself into a new polype, the practical effect will be that before long you will see a single polype converted into a sort of tree or bush of polypes. And these will all remain associated together, like a kind of co-operative store, which is a thing I believe you understand very well here,--each mouth will help to feed the body and each part of the body help to support the multifarious mouths. I think that is as good an example of a zoological co-operative store as you can well have. Such are these wonderful creatures. But they are capable not only of multiplying in this way, but in other ways, by having a more ordinary and regular kind of offspring. Little eggs are hatched and the young are passed out by the way of the mouth, and they go swimming about as little oval bodies covered with a very curious kind of hairlike processes. Each of these processes is capable of striking water like an oar; and the consequence is that the young creature is propelled through the water. So that you have the young polype floating about in this fashion, covered by its 'vibratile cilia', as these long filaments, which are capable of vibration are termed. And thus, although the polype itself may be a fixed creature unable to move about, it is able to spread its offspring over great areas. For these creatures not only propel themselves, but while swimming about in the sea for many hours, or perhaps days, it will be obvious that they must be carried hither and thither by the currents of the sea, which not unfrequently move at the rate of one or two miles an hour. Thus, in the course of a few days, the offspring of this stationary creature may be carried to a very great distance from its parent; and having been so carried it loses these organs by which it is propelled, and settles down upon the bottom of the sea and grows up again into the form and condition of its parents. So that if you suppose a single polype of this kind settled upon the bottom of the sea, it may by these various methods--that is to say, by cutting itself in two, which we call "fission," or by budding; or by sending out these swimming embryos,--multiply itself to an enormous extent, and give rise to thousands, or millions, of progeny in a comparatively short time; and these thousands, or millions, of progeny may cover a very large surface of the sea bottom; in fact, you will readily perceive that, give them time, and there is no limit to the surface which they may cover.

Having understood thus far the general nature of these polypes, which are the fabricators both of the red and white coral, let us consider a little more particularly how the skeletons of the red coral and of the white coral are formed. The red coral polype perches upon the sea bottom, it then grows up into a sort of stem, and out of that stem there grow branches, each of which has its own polypes; and thus you have a kind of tree formed, every branch of the tree terminated by its polype. It is a tree, but at the end of the branches there are open mouths of polypes instead of flowers. Thus there is a common soft body connecting the whole, and as it grows up the soft body deposits in its interior a quantity of carbonate of lime, which acquires a beautiful red or flesh colour, and forms a kind of stem running through the whole, and it is that stem which is the red coral. The red coral grows principally at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, at very great depths, and the coral fishers, who are very adventurous seamen, take their drag nets, of a peculiar kind, roughly made, but efficient for their purpose, and drag them along the bottom of the sea to catch the branches of the red coral, which become entangled and are thus brought up to the surface. They are then allowed to putrefy, in order to get rid of the animal matter, and the red coral is the skeleton that is left.

In the case of the white coral, the skeleton is more complete. In the red coral, the skeleton belongs to the whole; in the white coral there is a special skeleton for every one of these polypes in addition to that for the whole body. There is a skeleton formed in the body of each of them, like a cup divided by a number of radiating partitions towards the outside; and that cup is formed of carbonate of lime, only not stained red, as in the case of the red coral. And all these cups are joined together into a common branch, the result of which is the formation of a beautiful coral tree. This is a great mass of madrepore, and in the living state every one of the ends of these branches was terminated by a beautiful little polype, like a sea anemone, and all the skeleton was covered by a soft body which united the polypes together. You must understand that all this skeleton has been formed in the interior of the body, to suit the branched body of the polype mass, and that it is as much its skeleton as our own bones are our skeleton. In this next coral the creature which has formed the skeleton has divided itself as it grew, and consequently has formed a great expansion; but scattered all over this surface there were polype bodies like those I previously described. Again, when this great cup was alive, the whole surface was covered with a beautiful body upon which were set innumerable small polype flowers, if we may so call them, often brilliantly coloured; and the whole cup was built up in the same fashion by the deposit of carbonate of lime in the interior of the combined polype body, formed by budding and by fission in the way I described. You will perceive that there is no necessary limit to this process. There is no reason why we should not have coral three or four times as big; and there are certain creatures of this kind that do fabricate very large masses, or half spheres several feet in diameter. Thus the activity of these animals in separating carbonate of lime from the sea and building it up into definite shapes is very considerable indeed.

Now I think I have said sufficient--as much as I can without taking you into technical details, of the general nature of these creatures which form coral. The animals which form coral are scattered over the seas of all countries in the world. The red coral is comparatively limited, but the polypes which form the white coral are widely scattered. There are some of them which remain single, or which give rise to only small accumulations; and the skeletons of these, as they die, accumulate upon the bottom of the sea, but they do not come to much; they are washed about and do not adhere together, but become mixed up with the mud of the sea. But there are certain parts of the world in which the coral polypes which live and grow are of a kind which remain, adhere together, and form great masses. They differ from the ordinary polypes just in the same way as those plants which form a peat-bog or meadow-turf differ from ordinary plants. They have a habit of growing together in masses in the same place; they are what we call "gregarious" things; and the consequence of this is, that as they die and leave their skeletons, those skeletons form a considerable solid aggregation at the bottom of the sea, and other polypes perch upon them, and begin building upon them, and so by degrees a great mass is formed. And just as we know there are some ancient cities in which you have a British city, and over that the foundations of a Roman city; and over that a Saxon city, and over that again a modern city, so in these localities of which I am speaking, you have the accumulations of the foundations of the houses, if I may use the term, of nation after nation of these coral polypes; and these accumulations may cover a very

Coral and Coral Reefs - 1/3

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