The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth. It might also represent the most prolific cradle for new types of animals on the planet, according to new research published in the January 8 edition of Science.
"In the oceans, new species and genera tend to originate in the tropics and in the shallows near shore," says paleobiologist Carl Simpson of Humboldt University in Berlin, one of the researchers on the new paper. By using a massive collection of data on fossils from mollusks to South American mammals, which records where a fossil was found, how often it is found and what accompanied it, Simpson and his colleagues find "that a majority of genera first evolve in reefs and then later expand to other habitats."
In fact, of the 6,615 seabed invertebrates surveyed in the so-called Paleobiology Database, 1,426 evolved in a reef ecosystem. And the result is not just an artifact of reef and shallow-water fossils being relatively more studied. "Reefs are actually rare compared to other habitats," Simpson notes. "If anything, there is a bias against finding that reefs are cradles."