Indo-Pacific coral reefs are distributed over a truly huge oceanic area that covers almost half of the Earth’s entire surface.
Some of the reef ecosystems of this vast region contain – by far – the highest marine biodiversity of any area of the planet.
The Indo-Pacific region contains an abundance of all three major types of coral reefs (atolls, barrier reefs, and fringing reefs).
There are hundreds of atolls in the Indo-Pacific, making them one of the most common type of open ocean reefs in the region. Likewise, barrier reefs are considerably more widespread in the Indo-Pacific than in the Caribbean.
In contrast, fringing reefs are not as prevalent in the Indo-Pacific region.
They are nonetheless common in some areas, particularly in the high islands of French Polynesia, the Red Sea, and areas off east Africa.
There are some major differences in certain coral reef characteristics between coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region and those of the Greater Caribbean region.
Most healthy Indo-Pacific reef surfaces are composed nearly exclusively of hard coral colonies, unadorned by extensive growth of octocorals and large sponges as is so commonly the case with shallow Caribbean coral reefs.
Another major difference is the widespread presence of a prominent algal ridge on the seaward margin of Indo-Pacific reef crests. In comparison, algal ridges are relatively rare and poorly developed on Caribbean reefs.
Indo-Pacific reefs also often contain extensive reef flats composed of consolidated coralline sands situated immediately shoreward of the reef crest, a feature rarely seen in the Caribbean region.
Along with the greater balance in the relative numbers of major reef types, the incredible biodiversity housed on Indo-Pacific coral reefs is one of the biggest differences between reefs of this region and those of the Greater Caribbean.
The diversity of reef life that can be found on the most diverse Indo-Pacific coral reefs is truly staggering, with perhaps as many as 700 or so species of corals present, along with perhaps 3,000 kinds of coral reef fishes.
However, all these species are not present throughout the entire region. Rather, most species are restricted (endemic) to particular (and sometimes quite small) portions of the region. For example, about 25% of all the inshore fishes found in Hawaii are endemic (found nowhere else).
Thus, although there is a common thread of like species throughout most of the region, many distinctive sub regions exist (such as the Red Sea).
The center of biodiversity for the Indo-Pacific region as a whole is called the “coral triangle” – a rough triangle encompassing an area extending from the southern Philippines to eastern Indonesia and western New Guinea.
The farther a reef is located from this center, the correspondingly fewer species of fishes, coral and other reef life will be found.
There are two likely reasons for the far higher biodiversity found on Indo-Pacific coral reefs and their Caribbean counterparts.
First, the sheer size of the region occupied by Indo-Pacific coral reefs – as well as the length of coastline where corals can successfully grow – is much greater than in the Caribbean. This allows more room and opportunities for species diversification.
Secondly, most Indo-Pacific coral reefs did not experience the severe temperature changes the Caribbean region suffered during the Pleistocene ice ages. This likely resulted in more species of coral, fishes, and other types of reef life surviving into the current post-glacial epoch.
Because of the sheer size and remoteness of portions of this region, many Indo-Pacific reefs remain largely unexplored and new species of fishes and other reef life are continually being discovered.
Get updates via email on all things coral.