London, January 8 (ANI): A new study has determined that coral reefs give rise to many more new species than other tropical marine habitats, thus making them the hotspot for evolution.
According to a report by BBC News, scientists used fossil records stretching back 540 million years to work out the evolution rate at reefs.
They reported that new species originate 50 percent faster in coral reefs than in other habitats.
Coral reefs harbour a huge number of marine species, and are often likened to rainforests in terms of their biodiversity.
But they also provide a "pump of new marine species", according to Wolfgang Kiessling, the scientist from Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, who led this study.
He and his colleagues examined the fossil record to find the earliest evidence of benthic creatures - animals that live on the seafloor.
These creatures provide a good record of evolution.
They remain on the seafloor once they die, and are often fossilised along with some of the remains of their original habitats.
The team of scientists looked for the earliest fossils from each benthic genus, or group of species, in the fossil record.
"We checked when and where each genus first occurred," explained Dr Kiessling. "So for example, if the earliest fossils were 300 million years, we asked, 'Did it occur in a reef or outside'," he said.
He and his colleagues had access to a record stretching back to the Cambrian explosion - when the vast majority of complex organisms are believed to have emerged more than 540 million years ago.
This huge data set was compiled by an international project called the Paleobiology Database, which was started in 2000.
"We had the best documentation of the fossil record at our fingertips," Dr Kiessling told BBC News. "And there was also the geological context there, so we knew where each species occurred," he said.
"Our study shows that reefs are even more important than currently assumed. They are not only ecologically important for the marine environment, but also in an evolutionary sense," he added.
According to the team, its findings show that the loss of these evolution hotspots could mean "losing an opportunity to create new species" in the future.
Carl-Gustaf Lundin, head of the marine programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that, "Studies like this provide conclusive evidence that reefs are centres of marine biodiversity. And now we see their importance in the evolutionary history of the planet." (ANI)