Invasion of the sea squirt could threaten Eilat coral reef
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Invasion of the sea squirt could threaten Eilat coral reef

Fast-reproducing filter feeder, which attaches itself to underwater surfaces, thought to have arrived by ship via the Suez Canal

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The sea squirt Ciona intestinalis (CC-BY-SA-3.0 perezoso/Wikipedia)
The sea squirt Ciona intestinalis (CC-BY-SA-3.0 perezoso/Wikipedia)

Israeli zoologists have spotted a new, unwanted visitor in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Eilat — the sea squirt, which poses a potential threat to Israel’s only coral reef.

The sea squirt, named for its ability to squirt water if disturbed, is a filter-feeder that pumps water through its body to strain out plankton and other organic matter for food.

Ranging from 0.5 to 10 centimeters (0.2 to 4 inches) in size, it attaches itself on one side to a base, such as a rock or a shell, while its siphons filter water on the other.

Sea squirt populations have invaded ecosystems all over the world, helped by its environmental adaptability and fast sexual maturity.

Ciona intestinalis is “among the most damaging of invasive fouling species in the world,” according to the Israeli scientists who discovered the species lurking in the Eilat marina and described it in the journal Marine Biodiversity, the Haaretz news site reported Thursday.

Tropical fish at the Eilat Dolphin Reef. (Asaf Zvuloni/ Israel Nature and Parks Authority/FLASH90)
Tropical fish at the Eilat Dolphin Reef. (Asaf Zvuloni/ Israel Nature and Parks Authority/FLASH90)

Dr. Noa Shenkar of Tel Aviv’s University’s zoology department, assisted by student Yaniv Shmuel and departmental colleague Prof. Dorothée Huchon, said they believed the creature, spotted attaching itself on Eilat’s floating piers, is already spreading.

While the Gulf of Eilat’s stunning coral reef — a major tourism draw — still has a rich enough ecosystem to cope with outsiders, invasive species such as the sea squirt could pose a threat should the reef decline or suffer a sudden pollution episode, the researchers assessed.

They suspect it arrived by clinging to a boat that reached the Red Sea from the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.

Scientists have warned that Egyptian plans to widen the canal could enable more invasive species to pass between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

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