"Corals are like trees, they can change their appearance depending on where they grow. They can look different in shallow and deep water and on the coasts of other countries," Dr. Veron explained.
The survey also found a richer diversity in fish than anticipated and what may be three new species of damselfish.
"Two of these three fish got me very excited because I have studied this family for more than 30 years," said Gerald Allen, Ichthyology and Science team leader for Conservation International's Marine Rapid Assessment Program. "There are 350 species worldwide and I know them all like the back of my hand. I immediately recognized two of these three as new." The third may have been masquerading as another species, he suggested.
Cataloguing new species was only one goal. The expedition also collected socio-economic and biological data to help develop reef-protection policies. The researchers interviewed local fishermen and considered reef health. They found great ecological awareness and little evidence of coral bleaching, related to increased water temperatures.
"The state of these reefs was surprisingly good," Dr. Veron said. "Within 50 years, coral reefs around the world will be decimated, but I think the Madagascar reefs will be largely protected from the effects of global warming because of cold currents from the Southern Indian Ocean. If these reefs are looked after, in 50 years they will be there."