By TODD McLEISH / ecoRI News contributor

When both houses of the General Assembly passed bills declaring North Star Coral as the state’s official coral on June 8, that made Rhode Island the first state to designate a state coral. And while the state of the ocean isn’t known for its corals, advocates say that’s one of the reasons they’ve pushed for the nickname.

“People are often surprised to hear that there is a coral that lives off the coast of Rhode Island,” said Koty Sharp, associate professor of biology at Roger Williams University, who proposed the idea of ‘a state coral. “It’s part of our coastal ecosystem and it’s a very charismatic organization. Under a microscope, people are always in awe of its beauty.

“If we can show this to more people, especially school children, we can involve them in their local ecosystem and educate them on what’s out there. The more we do, the more we can expect the next generation to take action on conservation and make our environment a top priority. “

Choosing which coral to designate was not difficult. North Star Coral (Astrangia poculata) is the only hard coral found in New England waters. Unlike the familiar large corals that grow in warm water regions like Florida and the Caribbean, this brown or white coral can fit in the palm of the hand and is often mistaken for an anemone, with a fleshy stalk and long tentacles. .

“It’s very different from its tropical cousins ​​in a lot of ways,” said Sharp. “That’s what makes him so special. It’s different. It is much more durable, so it can withstand extremely cold winters and very hot summers.

The most significant difference, she said, is that northern star coral does not rely on a symbiotic relationship with algae, which tropical corals use to make sugars for survival. Rhode Island coral does not need this partnership to eat. Instead, it uses its tentacles to capture food in seawater.

The northern star coral is typically found in water 5 to 30 feet deep, although it has been documented to be over 90 feet deep. Its range extends from Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico, but it is also found in the Caribbean and off the coasts of South America and West Africa.

“It’s pretty abundant here in Rhode Island, much easier to find here in the shallows of our coastline than in Florida,” said Sharp. “We think it’s because this organism evolved to thrive in habitats that have large seasonal fluctuations – cold winters and hot summers. The tropics do not experience this kind of temperature variation. Tropical corals are not very resistant to these kinds of changes.

According to Sharp, North Star Coral was first described in the late 1700s from specimens collected off Newport. A retired professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, Michael Pilson, laid the groundwork for detailed studies of the species in the 1970s and 1980s, and Sharp has been studying its ecology and physiology for 10 years.

Due to coral’s resistance to varying temperatures, Sharp calls the northern star coral a model organism for understanding corals and what can be done to help them survive in the face of the climate crisis. She is particularly interested in the microbes that live on the surface of the coral and play a role in its ability to respond to and recover from climate change.

“We are studying this to learn more about Astrangia in the Rhode Island ecosystem, but we are also using it to extend the microbiology of tropical corals,” Sharp said. “One thing that has become very clear in recent years is that the microbes that live on the surface of tropical corals are extremely important for their responses to environmental disturbances. It is their first line of defense against microbial pathogens, infections and disease. Just like what we know about the human gut, the structure of the microbiome is of critical importance in regulating the health of the host animal.

Sharp’s research has grown in recent years, with more and more scientists interested in studying northern star coral. What started out as a group of 15 scholars has grown to over 120 who meet at Roger Williams University each year. It was at one of these meetings, when scientists discussed how to raise public awareness about North Star coral, that the idea of ​​a state coral was first discussed.

The legislation (H5415, S0067) designating the state of Rhode Island coral was sponsored by two Portsmouth lawmakers, Representative Terri Cortvriend and Senator James Seveney, who introduced it to draw attention to Sharp’s research at Roger University Williams.

“Species like the northern star coral can be an indicator that shows us where we are headed if we continue to abuse and pollute the land. We should pay attention to it, ”Cortvriend said. “While the bill is somewhat light-hearted and fun, what I really hope is that it will initiate more discussion of why we can’t wait to deal with our climate change crisis. . These tiny polyps have a lot to tell us about what we are doing to our planet, and designating them as our state coral can amplify that message.

The legislation has already energized Sharp and his fellow coral researchers. “Our research community is completely supported by this,” she said.

Now that the state’s designation of the coral is official, Sharp looks forward to using it as a platform for a number of projects, including a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program. Kindergarten to grade 12 focused on climate culture.

“Atrangia is a great emblem for the state of Rhode Island because it’s small like Rhode Island, it’s tough like the Rhode Islanders and it’s well positioned to provide insight to solve global issues,” said Sharp. .

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