FW: [Coral-List] What is a fossil coral

Precht, Bill Bprecht at pbsj.com
Fri Jul 11 11:21:13 EDT 2003


Fossil coral material (including sub-fossil material) should be defined as
corals (whole or fragments) that are dead (including all things living on or
in it).  This means either dead and exposed as in an outcrop, or dead and
buried below the sediment/water interface (out the taphonomically active
zone [TAZ]).  

However, if a coral is dead (no matter how old it is) but it is still found
in the TAZ, it must be considered part of the 'modern' assemblage and
therefore should not be considered as fossil material (this would give you
the needed protection for the 'live rock' category).  Live-rock by name is
reef rock that is still within the TAZ and should be afforded all due
protection by CITES.

One of the problems is how to define the specifics needed for a customs
officer (not a coral scientist) to be able to distinguish between the
various types of material (and be able to do this quickly!). Believe it or
not the "smell test" works well.  I have never collected a fossil coral that
smells bad -    

Many fossil corals are extant today making species identification
essentially useless to the inspectors.  For instance, most corals found in
Pleistocene outcrops throughout the Caribbean have a high concordance in
species composition with the modern but are clearly fossil material. A
typical problem, however, is that the preservation of some fossil material
is better than some material found on the reef today confounding the issue
for the customs inspectors.  

Having worked on Neogene corals from fossil and sub-fossil locations from
around the Caribbean, the degree of diagenetic alteration from site to site
and of different age is highly variable and I believe will not prove to be a
useful discriminator between recent and fossil material.  While highly
recrystalized corals are clearly fossil (and some of these are very young),
other material may retain its original minerallogy for a long time.  For
instance, I have collected Pleistocene age corals (125 ka) from Jamaica that
are indistinguishable from the recent.

As scientists we often bring fossil/subfossil corals and sediments into the
US for our research.  To assist customs officials, I usually include a note
from the country of origin as to the type material, location, age, method of
collection, etc... and label these as "Geological Research Specimens" and/or
"Marine Geological Specimens."

Hope this helps,


-----Original Message-----
From: Andy Bruckner [mailto:Andy.Bruckner at noaa.gov]
Sent: Thursday, July 10, 2003 10:59 AM
To: coral list server
Subject: [Coral-List] What is a fossil coral

Dear listers,

I am seeking a workable definition for a fossil coral that could be
adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
(CITES) and used by Law Enforcement when monitoring coral shipments
(exports and imports). As most of you are aware, all stony corals (all
species of scleractinain corals, as well as the genera Millepora,
Stylaster, Distichopora, Heliopora and Tubipora) are currently listed on
Appendix II of CITES.  In addition, material referred to by the aquarium
industry as " live rock" and "reef substrate" are also currently covered
under the treaty and must be reported as "Scleractinia".   Fossil corals
are exempted from CITES controls while non-fossils (live and dead
specimens) are regulated in international trade via permits.  No one to
date has come up with a working CITES definition of "fossil" corals that
was acceptable by all CITES parties.

In 2000 a small working group was formed through the Animals Committee
of the CITES to evaluate how stony corals are treated under CITES and
specifically to resolve the fossil coral dilemma.  The United Kingdom
commissioned a report from two experts, Tissier & Scoffin, on the fossil
coral issue. In this report, the authors conclude that a coral cannot be
considered a fossil until all living tissue has died and the coral is
buried.  Burial and permanent preservation refers to the coral surface
becoming covered in hard encrustations (including reef substrate covered
by coralline algae), lithification and mineralogical alteration.   But,
the authors indicate that the two latter components take a long time and
this is less relevant to the definition of corals collected from the
surface of present day reefs. The authors provide the definition as well
as a practical key for distinguishing fossil and non-fossil corals.
Based on their key and definition, most of the live rock in trade would
be classified as a fossil coral.

The concern of the U.S. is that the definition must be one that is
easily enforceable - law enforcement officials must be able to readily
differentiate between a fossil coral and non-fossil coral. We do not
believe that live rock qualifies as a fossil coral,  and are concerned
about the environmental implications if live rock were no longer
regulated under CITES.  The definition of Tissier & Scoffin would apply
to much of the wild collected "live rock" in the pet trade, which is
extracted from reef flats and other reef environments in the S. Pacific
and Southeast Asia and shipped to the U.S. and other importing countries
at quantities in excess of 1.5 million kg per year (the volume continues
to increase each year).  We feel that CITES provides one key mechanism
for promoting sustainable trade in live rock; most of the exporting
countries have few other measures to conserve this resource, and at
least one group has completed a study that demonstrate that current
harvest rates in some areas are causing significant habitat impacts.

If you are interested in seeing this report, I can forward a copy by
email.  Thanks for your help in defining a coral fossil.


Andy Bruckner
NOAA FIsheries
Office of Habitat Conservation

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