Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Coral polyps, the animals primarily responsible for building reefs, can take many forms: large reef building colonies, graceful flowing fans, and even small, solitary organisms. Thousands of species of corals have been discovered; some live in warm, shallow, tropical seas and others in the cold, dark depths of the ocean.
Coral reef diversity
Because of the diversity of life found in the habitats created by corals, reefs are often called the "rainforests of the sea." About 25% of the ocean's fish depend on healthy coral reefs. Fishes and other organisms shelter, find food, reproduce, and rear their young in the many nooks and crannies formed by corals. The Northwest Hawaiian Island coral reefs, which are part of the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, provide an example of the diversity of life associated with shallow-water reef ecosystems. This area supports more than 7,000 species of fishes, invertebrates, plants, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. Deep water reefs or mounds are less well known, but also support a wide array of sea life in a comparatively barren world.
Shallow water, reef-building corals have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which live in their tissues. The coral provides a protected environment and the compounds zooxanthellae need for photosynthesis. In return, the algae produce carbohydrates that the coral uses for food, as well as oxygen. The algae also help the coral remove waste. Since both partners benefit from association, this type of symbiosis is called mutualism.
Deep-sea corals live in much deeper or colder oceanic waters and lack zooxanthellae. Unlike their shallow water relatives, which rely heavily on photosynthesis to produce food, deep sea corals take in plankton and organic matter for much of their energy needs.
Benefits of coral reef ecosystems
Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion, provide jobs for local communities, and offer opportunities for recreation. They are also are a source of food and new medicines. Over half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection. Fishing, diving, and snorkeling on and near reefs add hundreds of millions of dollars to local businesses. The net economic value of the world’s coral reefs is estimated to be nearly tens of billions offsite link of U.S. dollars per year. These ecosystems are culturally important to indigenous people around the world.
Threats to coral reef ecosystems
Unfortunately, coral reef ecosystems are severely threatened. Some threats are natural, such as diseases, predators, and storms. Other threats are caused by people, including pollution, sedimentation, unsustainable fishing practices, and climate change, which is raising ocean temperatures and causing ocean acidification. Many of these threats can stress corals, leading to coral bleaching and possible death, while others cause physical damage to these delicate ecosystems. During the 2014-2017 coral bleaching event, unusually warm waters (partially associated with a strong El Niño) affected 70% of coral reef ecosystems worldwide. Some areas were hit particularly hard, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where hundreds of miles of coral were bleached.
Corals are able to recover from bleaching events if conditions improve before they die, though it can take many years for the ecosystems to fully heal. Scientists are also testing new ways to help coral reef ecosystems, such as growing coral in a nursery and then transplanting it to damaged areas.
Educators can use the resources in this collection to teach students about the science and beauty of corals. They can use these organisms and ecosystems to teach many scientific concepts including symbiotic relationships, reproduction strategies, food webs, chemistry, biotic and abiotic interactions, human impacts, and more. Additionally, educators can use corals to teach about conservation and stewardship of the environment. Even if you don't live near a reef, students can learn that they can help protect coral reefs in the United States and around the world. There are many actions, small and large, that everyone can take to help conserve coral reefs.