Of coral and common sense: Why it's important to test our theories

Pseudopterosins are a family of naturally occurring chemicals with the power to reduce inflammation, skin irritation, and pain. In other words, they make a great additive in skin cream. If you want skin that less red, pseudopterosins can help. Want a lotion that soothes your face after a particularly vigorous round of exfoliation? Call on pseudopterosins.

Pseudopterosins come from a coral called Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae. That's it in the photo above. For years, researchers and pharmaceutical companies thought they were sustainably harvesting P. elisabethae because, instead of simply gathering any of the coral they could find, they merely pruned it — leaving plenty of the creature to grow back.

But, it turns out that this is a really good example of a frustrating problem — what seems sustainable is not always actually sustainable. Doing the right thing, environmentally speaking, isn't as intuitive as we'd like it to be. (Also, pruning an animal isn't like pruning a plant.) At Deep Sea News, Dr. M explains:

After prunings in 2002 and 2005 and before the annual spawning, Christopher Page and Howard Lasker examined 24 pruned corals and 20 unpruned corals. What the researchers found is that although colonies appeared healthy pruned corals produced less eggs. ... Why would pruned corals produce less eggs and sperm? When organisms are injured more energy is diverted away from reproduction and toward repair. Interestingly, this pruning may actually also creating artificial selection. If workers are targeting larger and fuller corals to prune, then smaller less thick corals will be reproducing more and eventually become more dominant.

This is why science is important. Because, frequently, "common sense" isn't really all that sensical.

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  1. “Because, frequently, ‘common sense’ isn’t really all that sensical.”

    This would have been a fine entry if it had left out all references to common sense. The practice in question has nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with bad assumptions, which were entirely sensical, in that they weren’t nonsense, but perhaps not the best practice.

  2. “Because, frequently, ‘common sense’ isn’t really all that sensical.”

    ..or common.

    /my ethics prof in HS used to make a point of calling it ‘horse sense’.

  3. I’m really having trouble understanding why the adjective “unsustainable” is being implied here. 

    The corals still reproduce. So the amount of polyps the pruned versus unpruned corals produce doesn’t matter – new coral is still born.

     Sure, we may be selecting for smaller offspring but absent some criteria that demonstrates bigger is better, I fail to see the problem. 

    1. By harvesting from the larger corals, they
      i) reduce the number of their offspring – so smaller, slower-growing corals’ relative numbers increase;
      ii) select for smaller corals – smaller, slower-growing corals’ relative numbers increase.

      Eventually, you end up with mostly/only smaller slower-growing corals. Awkward.

  4. Many corals for aquarium hobbyists are maricultured.  Seems like the same could be done for this species.  Doing so might even reduce costs and add stability to the supply.

    1. Not always that simple.  Aquaculture can be a difficult industry to get license for (Especially in Australia.  Extremely arduous to get the license.  You’d think that they don’t want to have sustainability).

      Further, corals require specific lighting and water requirements.  This can be very VERY expensive.  When you consider how much coral you’d need, the amount of lighting and water and care, it’d become very cost prohibitive.  (As a rough indicator for you, I know to maintain health coral in my tank, I need about 100W of focused LED lighting which covers a tank 50cm x 50cm x 50cm.  I need to do a water change of 10 – 20% every week to maintain stable water chemistry as things like calcium/magnesium etc deplete.  I have a lightly stocked tank)

      The only logical way I can think of doing it cheaply would be to do it like oyster farming.  Get your prunings and culture them on racks in a nominated farming area.

      1. Get your prunings and culture them on racks in a nominated farming area.

        Agreed. That’s how mariculture is generally done. Either in the ocean itself, or outdoors using ocean water. Light is provided by the sun, and water quality just matches the ocean.

  5. second P as in “pterodactyl” or is it a hard P absorbed by the O in pseudo?
    instinct says the first, but wiki was no help.

    1. I think the only reasonable solution is to never bring up psuedopterosin in casual conversation. A good rule of thumb even if you do know how to pronounce it.

      1.  c’mon, man.  quit jiving me.  somebody speaks this word, either to students or to their scientist colleagues.  [shakes fist at the sky] THESE THINGS MATTER!!!!!

        1. Pseudopterosin is really on the very low end of what can happen when scientific systematic naming rules collide with actual compounds. People don’t generally bother to actually use those results; because they are barely words in any useful sense; but you don’t really have many good choices in a world inhabited by hundreds of thousands, at least, of molecules with several thousand or more component atoms(sometimes with multiple structural variations!). 

      1. Not actually similar – compare pterosin and pseudopterosin structures. Here pseudo- is part of the name of the coral, which is apparently a lot like Pterogorgia. Pterosins come from Pteridium, a fern.

        As far as saying it goes, the P is usually pronounced in names like hymenopteran and archaeopteryx, so I would go with that here. But I wouldn’t presume to correct someone who said it some other way.

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