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Healthy coral reefs of Madagascar resisting damage from climate change

Expedition finds some of Indian Ocean's most abundant marine life
Antananarivo, Madagascar – Healthy coral reefs of Madagascar's northeast coast have so far resisted the damaging effects of warmer ocean temperatures attributed to global climate change, say scientists who recently studied the region.

The survey of a previously unexplored region in March 2006 by scientists from Conservation International and its partners documented a much greater variety of life than expected, including one fish species believed new to science and 17 others noted for the first time in the waters off Madagascar.

These findings, combined with results of a similar survey in 2002 along northwest Madagascar's coast, increased to 829 the total number of fish species in Malagasy waters. The two Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expeditions also recorded the highest coral diversity of the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, making the region one of the richest in Indian Ocean marine biodiversity.

The latest results provide further information on the unique marine biodiversity of Madagascar for President Marc Ravalomanana's government, which has pledged to triple the island nation's total protected areas to 6 million hectares (23,000 square miles), including 1 million hectares (3,800 square miles) of marine protected areas.

"In the end, these expeditions have doubled the number of marine species known to the region," said Sheila McKenna, director of marine biodiversity for CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. "That demonstrates the need to protect these areas."

McKenna and Philippe Razafinjatovo, marine program coordinator for CI-Madagascar, led the latest expedition from March 10-24 in the region between Cape d' Ambre and Baie du Loky. The researchers conducted 27 scuba dives and also visited 12 coastal villages to examine how local residents use marine resources.

They found healthy coral reefs that have avoided bleaching attributed to climate change found in other Indian Ocean reefs. The researchers believe cool water currents from adjacent deep ocean areas offset the warming effects of climate change.

"The resiliency and health of the coral reefs with their biodiversity and endemism makes the reefs of Madagascar a high conservation priority," said Gerald R. Allen, a leading ichthyologist who conducted underwater fish surveys on the expedition.

Jean Maharavo of Madagascar's National Center for Environmental Research, who took part in both expeditions, noted that much of the island nation's marine biodiversity has yet to be studied.

"During each of these two expeditions, we discovered new fish and coral species," Maharavo said. "That shows the need to protect what's out there before we lose biodiversity that we never even knew existed."

Tom Cohen | EurekAlert!
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