Considered one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, coral reefs are fascinating structures that are crucial for life on Earth. Corals extract calcium carbonate from sea water to form a hard durable exoskeleton to protect their soft endoskeleton.
These colorful structures can be found in oceans around the globe. While they only make up a fraction of the ocean, these amazing ecosystems are home to a large number of sea creatures.
Coral polyps, the name given to the invertebrates that form the skeletal structure of coral reefs can take a variety of forms. Some form large reef colonies, others, graceful flowing fans and even small solitary organisms.
Here are a number of facts you might not have known about these amazing organisms:
1. Corals are actually animals
Though it is easy to mistake them as plants, they’re actually animals. Corals are “sessile” that attach themselves to the ocean floor, essentially taking root like most plants do.
But they do not make their own food as plants do. They extract nutrients from the ocean floor through their tiny tentacle arms into their miniscule mouths. In a way, they are similar to jellyfish and anemones.
2. Sunlight is essential for coral reefs
Coral reefs require sunlight in order to grow, which is why they’re most commonly found in shallow water where they have sufficient access to sunlight.
Coral reefs also prefer tropical seas as the water is clearer and warmer. However, they take a long time to grow, especially in cold temperatures.
3. Corals serve as important sources of medication
Coral reefs have evolved chemical defenses to protect themselves from predators since they are stationary animals. As a result, powerful medications can be harvested from coral reefs that can be used for the treatment of cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, viruses and other diseases.
Scientists continue to experiment with coral reefs to test their medical potential. It is estimated that in the near future, coral reefs will serve as an important source of pesticides, nutritional products, cosmetics and other commercial products.
4. Coral Reefs are visible from space
Can you imagine a sea structure that is big enough to be viewed from space? The world’s largest coral reef system is known as the Great Barrier Reef. Spreading over a vast area, composed of numerous islands, it is the single biggest structure made by living beings, so much so that it is even visible from outer space. The reef is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia and holds spiritual and religious importance to people indigenous to the region.
5. Coral Reefs are huge drivers of tourism
Coral reefs are the poster child for nature based tourism. Visitors from all over the world come to specifically see the reefs, swimming among the shimmering waters among hordes of colorful fish that inhabit the waters around the corals.
These travelers support entire industries- resorts, souvenir shops, tours, airlines and supply chains because tourists coming in not only need dive boats but also food and residence. According to estimates coral reefs represent an economic value of $36 billion dollars an year and support over 70 million trips, making them a powerful engine for nature and marine tourism.
6. Coral Reefs are as old as dinosaurs
Coral Reefs have been around for a very long time. According to research at the Red Sea Centre at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Coral reefs and their algae partners have been entwined with each other since the time of the dinosaurs, approximately 160 million years ago.
Most of the coral reefs that can be observed today are between 5,000 to 10,000 years old! While the size of the reef can sometimes be an indicator of its age, it is not always true.
7. Coral Reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems of the world
Research indicates that coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment. This includes over 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Each organism has a specific role and coral reefs help maintain balanced relationships between predators and prey competing for the same resources. Scientists are of the opinion that there still may be millions of undiscovered species inhabiting the place around corals.
8. Corals are natural protectors against storms, waves and floods
Not only do these majestic structures are an iconic sight, but they are extremely helpful during natural disasters.
Reef structures provide a much needed buffer against tidal waves, storms and floods to coastal communities, preventing loss of life, property damage and erosion. Damage to these coastal reef structures can expose the coastal communities to powerful tidal waves that can bring about substantial damage.
9. Corals help clean sea water
Clean water is essential, especially for marine life to grow and thrive. Coral reefs are a nature’s way to clean water by absorbing pollution.
Most corals and sponges act as filter feeders, which means they consume particulate matter in the water. The animals and organisms inhabiting the surroundings of coral reefs trap debris thereby, cleaning the coastal water.
10. Corals are important nesting grounds
Reefs create a relatively safer environment for fish and other sea creatures to lay eggs, nestling them from predators. Because of the complex structure of coral reefs, they can be used as a spot by sea creatures to hide their young.
They also provide sufficient nutrition for marine mammals such as dugongs.
11. There are different types of Coral Reefs
Scientist generally classify Coral Reefs into four main classes
A) Fringing Reefs: These grow near coastlines of islands and continents in shallow water. They are separated from the sea water by narrow and shallow lagoons. These type of reefs begin their growth at the coastline and spread outward to the sea as time passes. They are the most common type of reef that is seen.
B) Barrier Reef: These also grow parallel to the shoreline but are separated by deeper wider lagoons. They draw their name from the fact that at their shallowest point their growth reaches the water’s surface thereby becoming a “barrier” in navigation. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the largest and most famous barrier reef in the world. Other more famous barrier reefs include the Belize Barrier Reef and the New Caledonian Barrier Reef.
C) Atolls: Scientists have concluded that atolls are formed from fringing reefs when the sea level rises around them. Atolls are circular reefs that grow in the middle of the sea. They continue to grow in a circular fashion forming lagoons in the middle. They are commonly found in the Pacific and Indian (most famously Maldives) ocean.
D) Patch Reefs: They grow at the open bottom of the island platform or continental shelf, usually occurring between fringing reefs and barrier reefs. They are small and isolated but vary greatly in size, rarely reaching the water’s surface.
12. Corals and Humans share a common genetic heritage
According to research humans, and corals share many of the genes human possesses, especially those of temperature and acidity detection. This is why coral reefs can be used to extract medicine for complex diseases found in humans.
Corals also have a skeleton that is not so dissimilar to ours and similar genes that regulate their growth and metabolism. Now, scientists are moving towards using human medicine to heal ailments in coral reefs.
13. Corals glow, emanating a rainbow of fluorescent colors
Deep beneath the Red Sea, scientists have discovered corals that fluorescence in a range of colors. It is concluded that this fluorescence acts as sort of a sun block to the algae that attaches itself to corals. These algae can be significantly harmed by the sun’s intense rays. The pigments responsible for this glow can be used for microscopic research as well as helping physicians better see cancer cells in the body.
14. Coral Reefs are essentially immortal
Just like jellyfish, coral reefs have the ability to live on forever, if the conditions are right. Coral reefs that reproduce asexually are essentially immortal as research indicates. They also do not undergo an intrinsic ageing process because they can constantly regenerate.
15. They are one of slowest growing creatures on the planet
Growing at an average rate of 1 centimeter per year, they are one of the slowest growing creatures on the planet. Large coral colonies take millions of years to grow. Their growth rate can vary depending on the quality of water and nutrition available to them.
Healthier corals can exhibit growth rates of 10 centimeter per year. However, most usually grow much slower because of the deteriorating water quality in oceans around the world.
16. Prehistoric creatures inhabit the space around corals
As mentioned before, some of the coral reefs date back to the Mesozoic era, but so do some of the creatures that inhabit the space around them. The alien like nautilis is one such example. A distant cousin to the squid, what makes it peculiar is the fact that it has not undergone evolution and remained relatively unchanged in the last 500 million years!
17. Coral Reefs are found in areas with intense wave action
Reefs usually develop in areas that have a lot of wave action because the waves bring in food, nutrients and oxygen to the reefs. Waves also prevent the sediments from falling on reefs.
The constant waves also help strengthen the structure of coral reefs and make them stronger.
18. Corals are distant relatives of sea anemones and jellies
Corals are animals that consume particulate matter for nutrition but many are powered by the photosynthetic algal plants within their cells, using this energy to make large geological structures that coral reefs are so commonly known for. While they may not strictly satisfy the definition of plants or animals they are very closely related sea anemones and sea jellies, using their tentacles for defense and to capture prey.
19. Coral Reefs owe their colorful appearance to the algae that attaches to them
Coral reef systems are naturally colorful because of the algae that is usually present. The pigments of the reefs play a major role in their health and resilience. Today, more and more coral reefs have begun to lose their colors.
If you see a coral reef that appears white—a process known as coral bleaching—it was most likely the result of warmer water temperatures caused by climate change.
Coral Reefs are dying
Embedded on the bottom of the sea, coral reefs are a source of food, medicine, and most importantly, life, on Earth. Also known as a biodiversity hotspot, they house millions of sea creatures and are essential to support life on Earth.
Coral reefs have played a vital role in managing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, the growing water temperatures can cause severe damage to the reefs. If the temperature rises above a certain level, it has the potential to wipe out reefs across the oceans of the world.
The current temperature fluctuation has already resulted in increased levels of carbon dioxide in the environment due to decreased activity by the reefs.
To ensure the survival of the coral reefs, it is vital to take part in conservation strategies that aim to protect the environment and stop the harmful effects of climate change.
The responsibility lies on each one of us as well to use environment friendly products and reduce our carbon footprint.
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