By trying to look sexier you may be ruining sex for corals.

This image shows female Antillogorgia elisabethae with newly released eggs and developing planulae larvae. (Credit: Howard Lasker)

This image shows female Antillogorgia elisabethae with newly released eggs and developing planulae larvae. (Credit: Howard Lasker)

You might be surprised to learn that an ingredient in some skin crèmes is coral, or more accurately coral extract.  More specifically, Pseudopterosin A is a topical anti-inflammatory agent derived from the sea whip Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae and often included in beauty products.  P. elisabethae from the Bahamas possess higher concentrations of pseudopterosins than populations elsewhere.  As expected, workers in Bahamas prune branches from large corals to obtain pseudopterosins.

The pruning, as opposed to completely harvesting, is thought to leave a still healthy population of corals behind, ready to be pruned later. 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.

In pruned female colonies only 1 of 3 coral polyps carried no eggs. In untouched female colonies only 1 of 6 polyps possessed no eggs.  This combined with double the number of female polyps producing over 3 eggs in unpruned versus pruned, means much more reproductive power amongst untouched corals. Among unpruned male colonies, 75% contained 11 or more sperm producing organs; however, among pruned male colonies only 60% had over 11 sperm producing organs.

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 be 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.

So although you may get more sex by rubbing coral on your face, the corals won’t be so lucky.

Christopher A. Page, Howard R. Lasker. Effects of tissue loss, age and size on fecundity in the octocoral Pseudopterogorgia elisabethaeJournal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 2012; 434-435: 47 DOI:10.1016/j.jembe.2012.07.022


Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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3 comments on “By trying to look sexier you may be ruining sex for corals.
  1. You can eventually use genetic when you know which genes or genes clusters are involved in the synthesis. Corals and other marine organisms are well studied by chemists, but often the compounds described are possibly chemically synthetised or copied, but the original organism or consortium of organisms stay unknown.
    Yeast would not be the best bug into which introduce the gene cluster, several bacteria are excellent model for this.

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