The Hawaiian gold coral has a history of exploitation from the deep slopes and seamounts of the Hawaiian Islands as one of the precious corals commercialised in the jewellery industry. Due to its peculiar characteristic of building a scleroproteic skeleton, this zoanthid has been referred as Gerardia sp. (a junior synonym of Savalia Nardo, 1844) but never formally described or examined by taxonomists despite its commercial interest. While collection of Hawaiian gold coral is now regulated, globally seamounts habitats are increasingly threatened by a variety of anthropogenic impacts. However, impact assessment studies and conservation measures cannot be taken without consistent knowledge of the biodiversity of such environments. Recently, multiple samples of octocoral-associated zoanthids were collected from the deep slopes of the islands and seamounts of the Hawaiian Archipelago. The molecular and morphological examination of these zoanthids revealed the presence of at least five different species including the gold coral. Among these only the gold coral appeared to create its own skeleton, two other species are simply using the octocoral as substrate, and the situation is not clear for the final two species. Phylogenetically, all these species appear related to zoanthids of the genus Savalia as well as to the octocoral-associated zoanthid Corallizoanthus tsukaharai, suggesting a common ancestor to all octocoral-associated zoanthids. The diversity of zoanthids described or observed during this study is comparable to levels of diversity found in shallow water tropical coral reefs. Such unexpected species diversity is symptomatic of the lack of biological exploration and taxonomic studies of the diversity of seamount hexacorals.
USA - Hawaii