Marine Life Coral Reef Photo By Fascinating Universe Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Published on October 7th, 2009 | by Yellow Magpie

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The Coral Reef: Possessors Of The Fountain Of Youth

Coral Reef Photo By Fascinating Universe Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

We live in an age where there is a constant quest for immortality. This shows it true self in our endless, narcissistic thirst for fame and recognition. One animal is already well ahead of us and has defied mortality, the coral. In the great aesthetically-pleasing sights of healthy oceans, coral reefs are the life-blood of the seas.

Corals are one of the most iridescent spectacles in nature. Their wonderful spectrum of colours and the teeming animals and plant life that they encourage has caused many people to stop and gasp in admiration.

Coral Reef Photo By Peter Southwood Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Coral Reef Photo By Peter Southwood Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Tropical corals do not grow in depths greater than 50 metres (165 ft). Corals are found mostly in warm water. However, deep water and cold water coral also exist but are less well studied and documented than their more accessible tropical counterparts.

Animals Not Plants

Members of the Cnidaria phylum (which translates from Greek into English as stinging nettle) are part of the same family which includes the sea anemone and also the jellyfish.

Many people mistake coral for plants and it is easy to see why. Shimmering and swaying in the water’s current, coral looks like some exotic grass that has been covered in water. However, delve a bit deeper and its animal characteristics reveal themselves. Each head of coral is made up of thousands of individual animals called polyps. Each polyp has a mouth, a stomach and a stinging tentacle which it uses to catch its prey.

Coral Reef Coral Polyp

Coral Reef Coral Polyp

Living Skeleton

The actual coral reefs are built upon mineral structures. Colonial cnidarians and stony corals are the most common organisms on coral reefs. Corals build reefs by sieving water and filtering calcium. The calcium gathered and deposited by the polyps to form the structure. As they do so, the polyps themselves are pushed out and up, allowing the structure to achieve more height and width.

The coral that we all know and recognise is mostly formed by wave action together with erosion from other organisms (bio-erosion) that produces that oddly shaped structures that we call coral reefs.

A couple of centimetres (one inch) are added each year to the coral skeletal structure until eventually over hundreds of thousands of years a reef forms. Some reefs are millions of years old

Coral Cities

As corals get bigger and bigger over time, as each year passes they cover larger and larger areas. They become cities in their own right. Two-thirds of all the species of marine plant and animals live in coral reefs. The reefs provide the environment and cover for species to thrive. It is estimated that if you placed all the coral reefs in the world together they would cover an area the size of Ecuador.

Coral Reef In The Great Barrier Reef Australia Photo By Toby Hudson Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Coral Reef In The Great Barrier Reef Australia Photo By Toby Hudson Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Corals and Immortality

Corals don’t really age in the same way as most animals do. Like the stem cells found in human embryos, Coral cells can completely regenerate. If a small piece of a polyp becomes detached it will form into a whole new polyp. As a result of this regeneration some polyps may be centuries old.

Symbiotic World

Coral reefs have created a remarkable, though at times tenuous, symbiotic partnership with algae. This algae, called a dinoflagellate, lives in the skin of coral polyps. The algae feed on the waste products (mainly carbon dioxide) produced by the Coral feeding on micro organisms. One of the pay-offs for the coral is that the algae give the coral polyps their amazing variety of colours which helps to attract food. Another benefit the algae provide is that they create a sunscreen that protects the polyps from the harmful effects of the suns rays.

However, by far the most important service that algae provide for corals is food. Algae convert the carbon dioxide the coral produces into energy through photosynthesis. For this process to be done efficiently the water must be clean, unpolluted and shallow.

If conditions aren’t optimum for the algae they simply go elsewhere. Even increases in temperature can cause the algae to desert the coral reefs. When this happens the coral die in a process referred to as bleaching.

Dead Coral Reef Photo By Johnmartindavies Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Dead Coral Reef Photo By Johnmartindavies Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Threats To Coral Reefs

Human activity is the greatest threat to the future of coral reefs.

Coral mining, over-fishing, blast fishing and the digging of canals are serious threats to the future of coral reefs. However, by far one of the worst threats to coral is pollution. Sewage is a serious problem for coral reefs. Raw sewage draining into the sea has a devastating impact on nearby coral.

Climate change is a great factor in the continued success of coral. If the water temperature gets too high, zooanthellaue, a beneficial algae dies causing the coral to bleach itself and die.

Indicators Of Quality

Corals thrive when a delicate balance exists between levels of algae, the presence of diverse fish, and an optimum water temperature range. As a consequence, Corals are great indicators of healthy marine environments.

Coral Reef Photo By Richard Ling Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Coral Reef Photo By Richard Ling Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Corals are the litmus test for healthy oceans. They provide the right conditions to support abundant, teeming life. Yet, they are endanger. Although they are potentially immortal, their health is delicately linked with water quality and the fickle nature of their symbiotic relationship with algae.

Our constant striving for products to make us look and feel young means that coral could play an invaluable role in human evolution. Whether or not they can offer a cure for that great leveller death, is another question.

What they do provide are homes to myriads of species of marine life and they continue to dazzle divers with their illustrious presence.

Vital Statistics

  • Coral reefs are thought to cover over 280,000 square kilometres (174,000 miles).
  • The vast majority of them are found in the equatorial regions, typically, marine water which has few nutrients.
  • The famous Great Barrier Reef off Northern Australia’s coast is the largest reef structure in the world.


Further Reading

For a comprehensive understanding of Coral Reefs and the flora and fauna within the habitat, The Reef Set: Reef Fish, Reef Creature and Reef Coral is ideal.

An interesting entry into the subject of reefs is Corals: A Quick Reference Guide (Oceanographic Series)

Amazon.co.uk
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access The Reef Set: Reef Fish, Reef Creature and Reef Coral and Corals: A Quick Reference Guide here.

Amazon.ca
For those who live in Canada, you can obtain from here The Reef Set: Reef Fish, Reef Creature and Reef Coral and Corals: A Quick Reference Guide.

Amazon.de
For Germany: The Reef Set: Reef Fish, Reef Creature and Reef Coral and Corals: A Quick Reference Guide.

Amazon.fr
For France: The Reef Set: Reef Fish, Reef Creature and Reef Coral and Corals: A Quick Reference Guide.


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