Featured Creature: Coral

Photo from xprize.org

Which creature comes in a variety of fluorescent colors, provides habitat for thousands of other species, and is essential to keeping our blue planet blue?

The polyp!

Photo from xprize.org

An animal inside a colony inside an ecosystem

Polyps are the animals that make up corals. A variety of corals, each with its own name, color, texture, etc. make up coral reefs. So a coral reef is a community of multiple polyp colonies – how’s that for a brain teaser? 

Biodiversity hotspots

Although coral reefs only make up about one percent of the world’s oceans, they create homes and sustenance for about 2 million other species. That’s about 25% of all marine life! Some animals, like the parrot fish, see corals as a food source while others rely on coral reefs for shelter. These features attract animals from hundreds of miles away, and that is what makes these ecosystems so special. 

Photo from nayturr.com

Photo from nayturr.com

Corals help us too

Corals aren’t only important for other species. We humans rely on them, too. 

Some medicines, including anti-cancer drugs and painkillers, come from corals. Coral reefs are also a buffer against large waves. Coastal communities, both animal and human ones, are appreciative of this when a storm is on the horizon. 

About 500 million people have established livelihoods around coral reefs and the abundance of fish they provide homes for. A large portion of our global human population relies on fish meat as a protein source and fishing as an income source. Other people enjoy coral reefs for their gorgeous colors and for the many animals that visit them including sea turtles, sharks, and manta rays. This has created a billion-dollar tourist industry ranging from the biggest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, to the oceans of Belize. 

To ensure the sustainability of these activities into the future, we need healthy coral reefs. 

How are human activities impacting coral reefs?

Changing ocean temperatures, specifically rising temperatures, are threatening coral reefs worldwide. When corals become stressed due to shifting water conditions, they release the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues. Zooxanthellae, in return for having a safe space to live, create oxygen for the coral – something other creatures in the reef greatly appreciate!

The algae is also what gives the corals their color, so after they are released the corals become white. Bleaching events do not kill corals, but they become significantly weaker due to the amount of energy lost. If environmental conditions worsen or stay the same, it is unlikely that the coral will recover. 

Another major threat to corals is too many nutrients, originating from agricultural and industrial runoff. Untreated sewage and synthetic fertilizers find their way to the ocean after a rainstorm. When excessive nutrients enter bodies of water, algae grows in large amounts. Although corals like some algae, too much of it becomes toxic. As the saying goes, “everything in moderation.” 

Thankfully, more people are realizing the importance of coral reefs for the health of our oceans, ocean inhabitants, and ourselves. Tom Goreau in particular, as founder and director of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, describes coral reefs as the most important ecosystems on the planet, presenting them as bellwethers for the planet’s declining health. His inventions and work with local communities globally to protect and restore corals will astound you. We have worked closely with him and he has presented at many Bio4Climate conferences.  

For more on the beauty and magnificence of corals, you can watch the short clip below and share it with your friends. Corals and other anchors of biodiversity need everyone to get involved, so let’s keep sharing important information widely.Here!