Astrangia poculata coral from Ft Wetherill, Rhode Island demonstrating facultative symbiosis. Photo credit: Rotjan Lab

The humble northern star coral is one step closer to being elevated to an icon of the Ocean State.

The House of Representatives today passed legislation (2021-H 5415) sponsored by Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) to make the northern star coral — that’s Astrangia poculata, to marine biologists — the official state coral of Rhode Island.

While the ocean state is known for its many coastal offerings — calamari, beautiful beaches, picture-perfect lighthouses — coral is not high on the list of things most people associate with our shores at the 41st parallel north of the equator. In fact, the hardy northern star coral is the only coral found in Rhode Island waters.

But it is special.

It is found in shallow waters of the Caribbean, the western African coast and the western Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico to Buzzards Bay. It can live just as well in cold water as warm. And it is being studied by a group of New England-based marine biologists for what it can tell us about the impacts of climate change and pollution.

It was Roger Williams University marine biologist Koty Sharp, who is part of that group, who proposed the idea of an official state designation to Representative Cortvriend and Sen. James A. Seveney, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill (2021-S 0067).

Representative Cortvriend said she is happy to promote the bill because raising the status of the northern star could also bring attention to the research being done on it at Roger Williams University and other institutions, in turn highlighting the critical importance of addressing climate change now.

“Species like the northern star coral can be a bellwether that shows us where we are headed if we continue to abuse and pollute the earth. We should pay attention to it. While the bill is somewhat lighthearted and fun, what I really hope is that it starts more conversations about why we cannot wait to address our climate change crisis. These tiny polyps have a lot to tell us about we’re doing to our planet, and designating them our state coral can amplify that message,” Representative Cortvriend said in a statement.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which approved its own version of the bill April 6. Now each chamber must approve the other’s bill in order to forward them to the governor for signature into law. If the bill is enacted, Rhode Island will be the first and only state to have designated an official state coral.

Ryan Belmore is the Owner and Publisher of What'sUpNewp.  Belmore has been involved with What’sUpNewp since shortly after its launch in 2012, proudly leading it to be named Best Local News Blog in...