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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Formation of Coral Reefs
By Louis Agassiz (1807–1873)
 
From ‘Methods of Study in Natural History’

FOR a long time it was supposed that the reef-builders inhabited very deep waters; for they were sometimes brought up upon sounding-lines from a depth of many hundreds or even thousands of feet, and it was taken for granted that they must have had their home where they were found: but the facts recently ascertained respecting the subsidence of ocean-bottoms have shown that the foundation of a coral-wall may have sunk far below the place where it was laid. And it is now proved, beyond a doubt, that no reef-building coral can thrive at a depth of more than fifteen fathoms, though corals of other kinds occur far lower, and that the dead reef-corals, sometimes brought to the surface from much greater depths, are only broken fragments of some reef that has subsided with the bottom on which it was growing. But though fifteen fathoms is the maximum depth at which any reef-builder can prosper, there are many which will not sustain even that degree of pressure; and this fact has, as we shall see, an important influence on the structure of the reef.  1
  Imagine now a sloping shore on some tropical coast descending gradually below the surface of the sea. Upon that slope, at a depth of from ten to twelve or fifteen fathoms, and two or three or more miles from the mainland, according to the shelving of the shore, we will suppose that one of those little coral animals, to whom a home in such deep waters is congenial, has established itself. How it happens that such a being, which we know is immovably attached to the ground, and forms the foundation of a solid wall, was ever able to swim freely about in the water till it found a suitable resting-place, I shall explain hereafter, when I say something of the mode of reproduction of these animals. Accept, for the moment, my unsustained assertion, and plant our little coral on this sloping shore, some twelve or fifteen fathoms below the surface of the sea.  2
  The internal structure of such a coral corresponds to that of the sea-anemone. The body is divided by vertical partitions from top to bottom, leaving open chambers between; while in the centre hangs the digestive cavity, connected by an opening in the bottom with all these chambers. At the top is an aperture serving as a mouth, surrounded by a wreath of hollow tentacles, each one of which connects at its base with one of the chambers, so that all parts of the animal communicate freely with each other. But though the structure of the coral is identical in all its parts with the sea-anemone, it nevertheless presents one important difference. The body of the sea-anemone is soft, while that of the coral is hard.  3
  It is well known that all animals and plants have the power of appropriating to themselves and assimilating the materials they need, each selecting from the surrounding elements whatever contributes to its well-being. Now, corals possess in an extraordinary degree, the power of assimilating to themselves the lime contained in the salt water around them; and as soon as our little coral is established on a firm foundation, a lime deposit begins to form in all the walls of its body, so that its base, its partitions, and its outer wall, which in the sea-anemone remain always soft, become perfectly solid in the polyp coral, and form a frame as hard as bone.  4
  It may naturally be asked where the lime comes from in the sea which the corals absorb in such quantities. As far as the living corals are concerned the answer is easy, for an immense deal of lime is brought down to the ocean by rivers that wear away the lime deposits through which they pass. The Mississippi, whose course lies through extensive lime regions, brings down yearly lime enough to supply all the animals living in the Gulf of Mexico. But behind this lies a question, not so easily settled, as to the origin of the extensive deposits of limestone found at the very beginning of life upon earth. This problem brings us to the threshold of astronomy; for the base of limestone is metallic in character, susceptible therefore of fusion, and may have formed a part of the materials of our earth, even in an incandescent state, when the worlds were forming. But though this investigation as to the origin of lime does not belong either to the naturalist or the geologist, its suggestion reminds us that the time has come when all the sciences and their results are so intimately connected that no one can be carried on independently of the others. Since the study of the rocks has revealed a crowded life whose records are hoarded within them, the work of the geologist and the naturalist has become one and the same; and at that border-land where the first crust of the earth was condensed out of the igneous mass of materials which formed its earliest condition, their investigation mingles with that of the astronomer, and we cannot trace the limestone in a little coral without going back to the creation of our solar system, when the worlds that compose it were thrown off from a central mass in a gaseous condition.  5
  When the coral has become in this way permeated with lime, all parts of the body are rigid, with the exception of the upper margin, the stomach, and the tentacles. The tentacles are soft and waving, projected or drawn in at will; they retain their flexible character through life, and decompose when the animal dies. For this reason the dried specimens of corals preserved in museums do not give us the least idea of the living corals, in which every one of the millions of beings composing such a community is crowned by a waving wreath of white or green or rose-colored tentacles.  6
  As soon as the little coral is fairly established and solidly attached to the ground, it begins to bud. This may take place in a variety of ways, dividing at the top or budding from the base or from the sides, till the primitive animal is surrounded by a number of individuals like itself, of which it forms the nucleus, and which now begin to bud in their turn, each one surrounding itself with a numerous progeny, all remaining, however, attached to the parent. Such a community increases till its individuals are numbered by millions, and I have myself counted no less than fourteen millions of individuals in a coral mass of Porites measuring not more than twelve feet in diameter. The so-called coral heads, which make the foundation of a coral wall, and seem by their massive character and regular form especially adapted to give a strong, solid base to the whole structure, are known in our classification as the Astræans, so named on account of the little [star-shaped] pits crowded upon their surface, each one of which marks the place of a single more or less isolated individual in such a community.  7
 
 
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