In the tropical waters of the ocean, coral reefs flourish to provide a haven for many types of sea creatures. Some reefs are so large that they rival some continents. Others are small and provide micro-environments within their area. No matter what the size of the coral reef, scientists know this: the world would be a very different place without them. That’s why preserving them has become one of the top goals of the ocean environment today.
1. Put Them In a Zoo
A common mistake made by people today is thinking that coral reefs are plants. They do look a bit like plants, but they’re actually animals. If they were to have the family over for the holidays, the average coral reef would be inviting over their cousins, the sea anemone and the jellyfish. Talk about an awkward dinner conversation!
2. Are You Sure They’re Not Plants?
Another reason why a coral reef is often mistaken for a plant is because of how they survive. Coral reefs don’t eat food like an animal does. It relies on photosynthesis to survive, much like your average plant that grows on the planet. This is thanks to the relationship that it has with some algae that line the cells of its digestive tract. The algae is actually doing the photosynthesis work and then providing the energy to the reef. Every so often, if you wait long enough, the tentacles of a coral reef will reach out and snag a tasty treat that swims by too.
3. There’s No Judgment Here
The coral reef is one of the world’s most diverse environments. There are often thousands of different sea species that call a reef their home. It becomes an important place where food can be found, a safe place to sleep can be had, and it even serves as a sort of fish dating service. A coral reef can also help to protect young sea life as they grow up so that they’re ready to strike out into the rest of the ocean when ready to attend fish college.
4. Humans Are Helped Too
Outside of the rain forests of the world, coral reefs are a biome that is providing some of the most encouraging advancements in the field of human medicine right now. The animals and plants of the coral reef habitat are an important source for medicine that is under development right now to treat arthritis, cancer, and infections. It is believe that treatments for heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease are possible as well.
5. It’s a Costly Decision
Coral reefs do more than just provide a home for some fish. They also help to protect the shoreline of a country by acting as a sort of breakwater. A coral reef is also an integral part of the local tourism industry for its location and provides fishermen with the chance to bring in a fair living by helping people be able to eat. If just one coral reef is lost, for whatever reason it may be, then the result cost to that local environment could be as much as $1.2 million.
6. It’s Something the Doctor Won’t Mind
The coral organisms that make up the reef system are called “polyps,” just like those nasty little things that can be found in the digestive tract of a human and can become cancerous. These little polyps are actually a soft organism, but they are protected by a skeleton that is made from limestone. Reefs begin to form when a polyp attaches itself and begins to create clones of itself. This process continues until other polyps from other colonies join each other and a reef is formed. Scientists estimate that some coral reefs have been growing for over 50 million years.
7. The Real Invisible Man
Remember those algae that the coral reefs have that supplies them with their energy? That algae is also responsible for the colors that can be seen on the reef. The coral polyps on their own are actually translucent creatures. Brightly colored reefs are important. When a coral polyps begins to get stressed out, it will actually begin to evict all of its algae friends and that ultimate leads to a process that is called “bleaching.” When that happens, if immediate action isn’t taken to save the animals, then the reef system is going to die.
8. Marked With a Fragile Sign
Although a coral reef might look like an incredibly sturdy piece of the ocean, they don’t stand up well to the actions of humans who are around them. Just the slight touch from a human hand is enough to crush a coral polyp’s skeleton and that leaves it vulnerable to disease or even to bleaching. That’s why being very careful to not handle a coral reef in the ocean is part of the standard operating process of every dive team that will take visitors out to a reef.
9. It’s More of a Southern Hemisphere Thing
Coral reefs make up less than 1% of the total surface of the ocean. Many people know of the famous example around Australia, called the Great Barrier Reef. The reef tract that can be found in Florida is amongst the world’s largest systems as well and it’s the only living reef system that exists in all of North America. What makes the Florida reefs so interesting is the design of them. With spur and groove formations that grow near the surface of the water, this North American reef system is the most popular diving destination in the world.
10. Live On an Old Reef
There are a few atolls that can be found in the oceans of the world today and these are the remains of old coral reefs that are sometimes sitting on top of an active reef system. Most atolls are formed around the ring of a volcanic remnant. Sometimes islands can form because of coral reefs as well. Barbados is a classic example of this. Most of the beaches on Barbados, in fact, aren’t made from sand. They are made from the crushed skeletal remains of coral reef polyps that have come and go over a period of thousands of years.
11. They Can Adapt
Although coral reefs are thought to be a very delicate, fragile type of creature, the Red Sea corals prove that these creatures do have an ability to adapt to changing water conditions. Outside of some of the unique characteristics that can be found in these reefs in the north of the Indian Ocean that fall outside of classification, these reefs have been known to have higher tolerances for changing seas temperatures and changing levels of salt. The Red Sea reefs can actually survive in waters that would kill almost every other coral reef system in the world today.
12. Most Reefs Are At Risk
At the rate of decline that scientists are seeing with coral reefs today, it is estimated that about two-thirds of the world’s total system of reefs could bleach itself in just 30 years. This is based on data from studies that have occurred in the Florida reef systems, where over 90% of the reefs have lost their living cover in just 40 years. A vast majority of the reef systems are overfished, are sensitive to water pollution, and this leads to disease development.
13. They Like It Dead
Another contributing factor to the reduction of coral reefs is the fact that they can’t form in waters that are rich in nutrients. This is because of the symbiotic relationship that they have with the algae that’s in their digestive tract. The algae doesn’t like to have a lot of competition with other types of algae when it is trying to create some food for its host, so the sunlight coming through the virtually dead water is what a coral polyp is going to look for when trying to establish a new colony.
14. Protecting Millions and Millions
In the United States alone, several million people live along coastlines that are protected by coral reefs. When the entire world is taken into account, over 1 billion people find themselves to be living in areas that reefs are protecting. Without the presence of a coral reef, floods would be greater. Wave erosion would cause much more damaged. Coral reefs even act as a buffer against storms that blow in from the sea.
15. A Once in 5,000 Year Experience
It takes about 5,000 years for the systems of coral reefs that we see today to develop. The North American coral reefs are believed to have begun forming right after the last Ice Age. That means a reef that bleaches itself today and cannot recover will not have a new reef system in place for thousands of years. In practical terms, this would mean seeing the Greeks, the Romans, and even the Egyptians all come and go one more time for the coral reef to be restored.
Coral reefs are an integral part of our world. About 10% of the foods we eat come from them. With responsible management and care, we can save them for future generations and potentially protect our world. That’s why knowing these facts about coral reefs is so important.