There was a time in which rumors circulated science study groups and biolabs alike, claiming coral downright lazy. This calm, colorful sea culprit got a bad rap and I’m sure the diss stung harder than those jellyfish cousins coral call family.
Corals just want to have fun, and just because they are as sedentary as a rock doesn’t mean they can’t do just that. Sure, they may be deemed the quintessential couch potato of the shallow sea, relying on 90% of their energy source from other organisms, with the additional 10% arriving from scraps of food brought in by waves. Move over Blobfish- the ugliest, most sloth-like sea dweller out there. Coral is the true transgresser when it comes to the aficionado bottom feeder of the ocean floor. Let it be known, however, there’s a lot more to coral than just a pretty face– sweeping seabed floors in every shade from pink to red to blue. Coral does more than protect and serve, offering food and shelter to colorful sea life varying from mollusks to starfish to turtles and sharks. Here are 10 fascinating facts about coral you probably didn’t know.
1. Sand Is Made From Pooped Coral
If you happen to be on vacation as you read this than you may have just spit out your cocktail– sorry. Better yet, the next time to receive a photo text from that cousin you hate, bearing a long white strip of pristine beach and the words: Greetings from paradise!– be sure to give a little chuckle. The funny thing is, as he or she slathers their skin with coconut oil in attempt to sink into the pearly white sand beneath them, just know that they’re actually laying in fish poop. But wait! What does this have to do with coral??
There’s a cheeky little fish called the Purple Streak Parrotfish and this guy just so happens to feed off coral. A little snack with a side of sea salt has the Parrotfish nibbling on delicious algae to encompass Ben and Jerry’s own Phish Food of the sea. Afterwards, the fuel is excreted into a beautiful white sand substance and this process helps create those perfect beaches adorning postcards and destination brochures. While a grain of sand doesn’t seem like much, on average the Purple Streak Parrotfish can produce up to 200 pounds of this sandy secretion per year. So next time you’re on vacation, have a cocktail and sit back and bask in the glory of a poop covered beach.
2. Size Matters
Corals didn’t earn the nickname “tropical rainforest of the sea” for nothing. These cool and colorful sea creatures are so vast when it comes to size and animal biodiversity that they fall a close second to rainforests in terms of their lush abundance of life. As there are twenty five different families of corals around the world and roughly 1500 species, it comes as no surprise that coral is a superhost to a variety of sea life.
While coral reefs manage to span as little as 1% of the ocean, they provide a cozy home to 25% known marine species. Plus, offering homes to more than 4,000 different species of fish, it is quite fascinating to think that there are more of these swimmers inhabiting a two-acre span of reef than there are species of birds in the entirety of North America! As a host to the single most diverse marine ecosystem on the planet, it is no wonder that these harmonious sea havens act as aquatic nurseries amid the inner workings of a bustling city under the sea.
3. Minerals And Plants And Animals, Oh My!
The identity crisis of coral flourishes threefold as people continue to ask what this colorful creation may be classified as. With a digestive and reproductive system synonymous to animas, a rooted foundation in accordance with plants, yet the stationary look of a rock… What gives? Based on the complex relationship of each, corals actually fall into the category of all three.
Due to their hard surface and sedentary state, corals are often confused for rocks. Since one small mass of coral is actually made up of thousands of tiny living, breathing organisms called polyps– corals are indeed animals. Polyps can be thought of as open-ended tin cans with wide mouths and spindly tentacles eager to trap prey and make predators stray. These fascinating colonies of coral polyps range from less than an inch in size to several inches in diameter– depending on the species. They help build protective calcium carbonate skeletons that form the main structure of coral reefs. And while this may be a bit cryptic, it just so happens that reefs are built up by new corals fastening themselves to the old skeletons of dead animals lining ocean floors. But hey, no one’s perfect.
Growing in the shallows of clear tropical waters where sunlight can easily hit the soft seabed floor, corals don’t stray far from land. Infact, out of the three main types of coral reefs, one is most often mistaken for an island! Coral atolls are ring shaped reefs which encircle a lagoon and adorn the rim of eroded volcanoes. As the volcano depletes and dips below the surface, coral rises and sand eventually covers the reef to form an island. The other two types of coral reefs are fringing reefs and barrier reefs– the former literally ‘fringing’ the coastline and the latter acting as actual barriers! A commonality of all three reefs are the two type of coral that encompass each: hard and soft. Stony corals build the reef’s solid frame through the production of limestone, and soft corals provide a safe habitat for its marine life friends.
Unlike rocks, corals are alive. And despite being “deep rooted” to the ocean floor, corals are disparate to plants in that they do not make their own food. Thus, corals are living, breathing organisms and they are in fact animals.
4. When Coral Met Algae
The relationship between these two is endearing to say the least. For now, compare coral and algae to best friend roommates with a very charming symbiotic relationship– that is, their union is mutually beneficial to both.
Coral relies on photosynthetic algae to receive 90% of its food and energy through photosynthesis; in turn, coral tissues attract algae and provide the compounds necessary for photosynthesis. In a sense, algae helps coral survive and coral gives its friend a cozy habitat to live in. Oh—and the beautiful colors associated with coral… algae dos that; isn’t that the cutest thing?
5. Age Is Nothing But A Really Long Number
Here’s a fun fact: Coral outlived the dinosaurs! Having existed for over 400,000 years, the Mediterranean sea was home to the largest ever number of coral colonies but this was then, now, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is considered the largest living thing on earth and can be seen from space! As far as how many years coral dates back in time, geologists suggest that the ancestors of modern reef ecosystems are at least 240 million years old– sharing the same age as our dinosaur friends so to speak, and having outlived them due to their survival of the ice age.
Thus, as these solitary forms have appeared in the fossil record for more than 400 million years, corals are considered ancient animals of the sea, evolving into contemporary reef-building structures over the past 25 million years. Today, many secured corals are aged between 5 and 10,000 years old– and while size at times determines age, this is not always the case.
6. Familial Ties
And you thought you didn’t like your family. Imagine being related to the stinging jelly or stinging polyp– aka the sea anemone. This is where coral polyps get their ability to sting out of defense and capture food through their ring of floating tentacles. It’s like they always say: A family that preys together stays together.
7. Barrier Actually Means Barrier
Did you know that reef building corals live in shallow tropical waters between 20-29 celsius and act as actual buffers against the open sea? Reefs protect the coastline against menacing waves, stormfronts, floods and help lessen loss of life in the wake of natural catastrophe, as well as lessen property damage and land erosion.
One of the greatest known barriers is the Great Barrier Reef located in Australia off the coast of Queensland. This ecosystem spans 2,300 kilometers and consists of thousands of reefs and hundreds of islands all encompassing over 600 types of the hard and soft corals aforementioned. The anomaly that is the Great Barrier Reef is that it is considered young at 8,000 years old, having developed after the ice age.
8. New-Age Medicines
The next time you need to go to the pharmacy, look no further than your local barrier reef. According to the National Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coral is the quintessential medicinal cabinet of the sea. Think about it: A functioning organism that doesn’t ever move has to find a vital way to protect itself. Living an immobile life thus involves the evolution of chemical defense mechanisms that keep it safe from harm. Within these microscopic polyps, scientist continue to discover new medical treatments, commercial products and even cosmetics produced from the diverse chemical components found in corals. Who would have thought!
What’s more, new medicines discovered and developed through corals are aimed at cancer treatments, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, human bacterial infection, viruses and a string of other life-threatening diseases. Coral’s stationary rock-like essence have caused them to evolve certain chemical defenses worthy of protection against predators of the sea.
9. Ask Not What You Can Do For Coral, But What Coral Can Do For You
The pinnacle of coral preservation lies in the fact that coral reefs have proved essential in terms of human productivity. Our coral friends aid in food supply, protect shorelines, assist in the allure of tourism and tourism based employment— in addition, coral is an underwater pharmacy that has been scientifically adept in producing treatments for a variety of ailments. Better yet, reefs plan a crucial a role in the management of carbon dioxide levels– clearly a considerable benefit to the success of civilization.
According to a study by Smithsonian Ocean, approximately 30 million depend on the reefs for their livelihood. The value of coral ecosystems is estimated at USD $29.8 billion per year based on food, jobs, and protection of our coastlines. All in all, coral reefs are a very unique structure of life and productivity: They rival old growth forests in terms of longevity regarding their ecological systems. These complex creatures reflect thousands of years of history and need a helping hand to procure a thousand years forthcoming.
10. Coral Bleaching
Best not to be too hard on these colorful creatures as they are actually very fragile and sensitive. Any change whatsoever to temperature or light results in ocean acidification and a little disagreement with it’s better half, algae. Unfortunately, algae can live without coral but coral cannot live without algae– a sad dynamic that can negatively influence even the strongest of relationships.
The biggest and only threat to these ancient creatures of the sea are people. Several factors such as overfishing, coral mining, tourism, pollution and global warming prove irrevocable and an imminent cause toward extinction. Overfishing occurs when boats hit reefs and destroy them; also, catching more fish than the system can support lends a strong decline in fish populations and affects ecosystems dependent upon these resources. As far as tourism goes, inexperienced divers are permitted to swim near and touch the reefs— this results in parts of the coral breaking off and experiencing severe stress. When this happens, a sad thing called coral bleaching happens.
Major factors causing coral bleaching are from global warming and pollution. When trash floats on the surface it affects water temperature and light which affects any chance of photosynthesis occurring below the surface. In addition, runoff from deforestation causes sediment to pollute water. In the wake of light, oxygen and food dissipating, algae abandons its best friend roommate relationship with coral. When it goes, so does the beautiful color associated with coral. And then it dies.
Coral bleaching occurs when corals become white from stress; instead of being “beautiful this way”as tourists deem them, they are in fact enduring major distress and thus, dying. When coral bleaching occurs, 10 to 20% never recover.
Currently, 25% of our reefs are damaged beyond repair. As of now, 19% of the world’s reefs have been lost. 15% will be seriously threatened in the next 10 to 20 years. But here’s one slight positive (positive by loose tems)— coral happen to find plastic tasty! That’s right, science has found that the chemical additives in plastic produce a stimulant that is attractive to corals. They like trash! Unfortunately for their BFF life host algae, plastic is highly detrimental to the survival of algae.
The simple task of caring for our planet— in reducing litter and careless sea practices— can seriously improve the life of something that existed prehistorically. There alone lies a cause to consider.