I bet many people have not had the opportunity to visit a coral reef but have seen them movies or documentaries. Or maybe you’ve never heard of them at all. This form of ecosystem is not as common as many others you are used to but oh just as important!
First off, people might be wondering, “what even is a coral reef?” Well it’s definitely not rock. What if I told you this giant mass or coral is actually a living organism? They are tiny animals known as “polyps” that stay in one place and make up the entire structure of a reef. They basically consist of a stomach with tentacles as arms that sting during the night in order to catch their food and eat. They outer skeleton is so hard because of the calcium made. Each polyp is then connected by living tissue to those surrounding it to form a community. However, only the top layer that we see is made up of these living organisms, all other layers beneath are dead, eventually making a coral reef.
So now that you know exactly what a coral reef is, we can talk about fun stuff! This ecosystem is actually one of the most diverse in the world. They can individually house up to around 25% of all marine life in just 2 acres of a reef! They have been around for around a million years yet less than 0.1% of the oceans around the world are covered by coral reefs. This might be because coral reefs grow incredibly slow, only about 0.3 cm to 10 cm per year! This being, the reefs we have today have been growing for the past 5,000 to 10,000 years! They are found in fairly shallow (about 150 ft deep) and warm (68-82degrees F) waters because they need the sunlight to survive and to keep the other plant life they shelter alive as well. Surprisingly, coral comes in many different colors ranging from red, white, pink, blue, orange, green, and purple caused by natural pigments in their tissues. If there is one reef that people have heard of, it is definitely the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This coral reef is the largest in the world stretching longer than 1200 miles!
The sunlight that reaches the coral reefs are very important to keep the plant life living on these reefs. Many of the plants, such as phytoplankton, algae, and others actually convert the light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis just like plants on land. This energy is passed through the food chain once animals begin to eat theses energy producing plants. They provide food and oxygen to the animals living on and around the reef. Seagrasses are especially to be thankful for as they provide a large amount of shelter for juvenile reef animals such as lobster and conch to hide.
It’s crazy to think that there are as many species of animals and birds in North America as there are in about 2 acres of a coral reef! This just shows how diverse this ecosystem truly is. There are many reasons animals use a coral reef, be it as a stopping point like an oasis while traveling or a permanent residence. I’ve been talking about all these tiny plants and animals that live in reefs so far but there is such a wide range of larger and more familiar animals that call coral reefs their home. Some of these animals include sponges, urchins, worms, sea stars, soooo many fish, rays, lobsters, shrimp, sharks, octopus, snails, turtles, and so many more!
Not only can they house so many species, they also do amazing things for the world. Coral can remove and recycle carbon dioxide within the water that would lead to global warming. They also protect the lands they grow by from harsh weather and large waves by absorbing the wave impacts. And provide a large amount of food for human consumption such as lobster and conch. They may also be important in medicines. It is known that the coral skeletons can be used as a bone substitute in reconstructive bone surgery.
If coral reefs are such an amazing ecosystem, why are they continuously being destroyed? It can be estimated that 10% of the little reefs we have today are already lost. Some scientists even say within the next 50 years all of the coral reefs on Earth will be gone! This devastating news could be linked to a number of causes from human pollution, fishing, sewage, erosion, and even global warming. This may be one of the only ecosystems that is not being destroyed by the human population moving in though!
There are many small things we can do to prevent the disappearance of this ecosystem. Even as easy as not dumping chemicals down the drain or in your lawn. Yes maybe you don’t live near the ocean, but everything in the world is connected and it will end up reaching a body of water at some point. I would highly suggest visiting one of these amazing tourists’ spots not only because of the beauty they hold but also because we might not have them for vary much longer.