Six species of reef-building coral could vanish from the Caribbean due to rising temperatures and toxic runoff from islands' development, according to a study released Thursday.
Nearly two dozen scientists from U.S. and Caribbean universities, as well as nonprofits, identified the threatened species while reviewing studies and scientific data at a March conference in Dominica.
The species — about 10 percent of the 62 varieties capable of forming reefs in the region — include staghorn and elkhorn corals, which were once among the most prominent.
"One of the Atlantic Ocean's most beautiful marine habitats no longer exists in many places because of dramatic increases in coral diseases, mostly caused by climate change and warmer waters," said Michael Smith, director of the Caribbean Biodiversity Initiative at Conservation International, a U.S.-based nonprofit.
Peter Edmunds, a biology professor at California State University-Northridge, said the study provided a broad perspective that is "terribly important" but does not indicate how close a particular species is to dying off in the region.
"It begs the question, is there a part of the Caribbean where the story is different?" he said.
Researchers have blamed rising temperature, disease and pollutants for damage to the coral reefs, which host countless marine plants and animals.
"The numbers of the population are so diminished that it might take a long, long time, given the right conditions, for them to recover," said William Precht, a Florida-based scientist with the Battelle Memorial Institute who participated in the study.
The team also reported significant damage to mangroves, which filter pollutants, reporting the plants cover 42 percent less area in the Caribbean than they did 25 years ago.
Conservation projects are under way to protect coral colonies in the Caribbean. The U.S. government's Coral Reef Task Force is helping officials in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands cut back on pollution and recreational activities that could threaten coral.
The study was sponsored by the Caribbean Biodiversity Initiative, along with the nonprofit World Conservation Union in Switzerland and the Royal Caribbean Cruises' Ocean Fund.