Coral reefs have taken a beating in recent decades. Ask someone who dove off the Florida coast in the '70s and he'll tell you the reefs today are a shadow of what they once were.
Overfishing, reckless coastal development, pollution, careless boaters, and human plundering have all had a perilous effect on the increasingly fragile ecosystems throughout the world.
Now there's a new threat for coral to deal with, and it's a bit embarrassing: herpes.
A new study from researchers at Oregon State University found that various types of herpes viruses were present in coral samples that were put through a type of genome analysis.
"We were shocked to find that so many coral viruses were in the herpes family," study author Rebecca Vega-Thurber said. "But corals are one of the oldest animal life forms, evolving around 500 million years ago, and herpes is a very old family of viruses that can infect almost every kind of animal. Herpes and corals may have evolved together."
While the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, demonstrated the presence of herpes viruses, it didn't show that the animals actually became sick as a result of herpes.
"Just because you harbor a virus doesn't mean you get sick from it," Vega-Thurber said. "This is part of what we have to pin down with further research."
The study also noted that herpes isn't the only virus found in coral. The animals can be prone to "adenoviruses and other viral families that can cause human colds and gastrointestinal disease."
In a news statement, Vega-Thurber was cautious about linking her findings to declines in coral populations. But she noted that coral populations in the Caribbean Sea have dropped upward of 80 percent in the past 40 years. Furthermore, about one-third of the world's coral is threatened by extinction.
In Florida and abroad, reefs are huge revenue generators. Down here, tourists drop millions of dollars each year to swim around the striking structures with colorful marine life. Better understanding whether or how herpes and other viruses are diminishing the reefs could help maintain the reefs' reputation as a must-see attraction.