Dry Corals Offer Snapshots of Oceans Past

by AMNH on

From the Collections posts

When you think of coral, you might picture snorkelers along a beautiful reef or maybe bleached-out sections—eerie indicators of the costs of warming ocean waters caused by climate change.

But corals also exist in museum collections. At the American Museum of Natural History, the dry coral collection—which dates back to the 1870s—includes about 4,000 specimens that offer an invaluable window into the past.


Seven pieces of dry coral with identifying tags attached.
The Museum's dry coral collection includes about 4,000 specimens.

Last year, the Museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to preserve this unique collection in a three-year project. (Watch the video below to see what it takes to clean, photograph, and rehouse these specimens.)


“The collection of dry corals here is important because it’s old,” says Estefanía Rodríguez, associate curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “And that means that we can travel in time and see how the oceans were 200 years ago.”


Hands hold a brush and tiny suction device over a coral specimen.
As part of the current conservation project, conservators are cleaning and rehousing corals.

Corals (Cnidaria) are critical to ocean research. Though they cover less than one percent of the Earth’s surface, according to studies cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs are home to more species per unit area than any other marine environment. They also buffer shorelines from waves and protect coastal wetlands, ports, and harbors. Existential threats, such as rising water temperatures and habitat degradation from pollution, only enhances the value of historic collections.


Fish swim through clumps of spiked coral lining the sandy ocean floor.
Live corals in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, home to the only barrier coral reef in North America.
Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

”You can see how things were in the past and the conditions of the past,” says Dr. Rodríguez, “With that we can make inferences of how the animals now are going to react to different conditions.  So with a glance of the past, we can perhaps know what the future is going to be.”


Learn more about the IMLS Coral Rehousing Project.