The 1492 indigenous people of the Bahamas were called "Lucayan", an Anglicization of the Spanish Lucayos, derived in turn from the TaínoLukku-Cairi (which the people used for themselves), meaning "people of the islands". The Taíno word for "island", cairi, became cayo in Spanish and "cay" in English (spelled "key" in American English, "caye" in Belizean English).
Formation and composition
Cay sand under an optical microscope
A cay forms when ocean currentstransport loose sediment across the surface of a reef to a depositional node, where the current slows or converges with another current, releasing its sediment load. Gradually, layers of deposited sediment build up on the reef surface. Such nodes occur in windward or leeward areas of reef where surfaces sometimes occur around an emergent outcrop of old reef or beach rock.
The island resulting from sediment accumulation is made up almost entirely of biogenic sediment - the skeletal remains of plants and animals - from the surrounding reef ecosystems. If the accumulated sediments are predominantly sand, then the island is called a cay; if they are predominantly gravel, the island is called a motu.
A range of physical, biological and chemical influences determines the ongoing development or erosion of cay environments. These influences include: the extent of reef surface sand accumulations, changes in ocean waves, currents, tides, sea levels and weather conditions, the shape of the underlying reef, the types and abundance of carbonate producing biota and other organisms such as binders, bioeroders and bioturbators (creatures that bind, erode, and mix sediments) living in surrounding reef ecosystems.
There is much debate and concern over the future stability of cays in the face of growing human populations and pressures on reef ecosystems, and predicted climate changes and sea level rise. There is also debate around whether these islands are relict features that effectively stopped expanding two thousand years ago during the late Holocene or, as recent research suggests, they are still growing, with significant new additions of reef sediments.
Understanding the potential for change in the sediment sources and supply of cay beaches with environmental change is an important key to predicting their present and future stability. Despite, or perhaps because of all the debate around the future of cays, there is consensus that these island environments are very complex and somewhat fragile.
Warraber Island in central Torres Strait (10°12?S142°49?E / 10.200°S 142.817°E / -10.200; 142.817), Australia, a small 'vegetated sand cay' according to the classification schemes of McLean and Stoddart (1978) and Hopley (1982). Approximately 750 m × 1,500 m (2,460 ft × 4,920 ft), this island is situated on the leeward surface of a large 11 km2 (4.2 sq mi) emergent reef platform. This cay and the surrounding reef flat are Holocene in origin, having formed over an antecedent Pleistocene platform.
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