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Reef-building coral polyps range in size from 1-3 mm in diameter. However, the largest coral polyps can be up to 10 inches across. Coral reefs, communities of different coral colonies, can stretch for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
Due to the specific conditions necessary for most coral reefs to thrive, they are usually found worldwide in the tropics, up to 30° N and 30°S of the equator. Aside from the well-known Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, extensive coral reef systems are found in the Caribbean Sea, Red Sea, Indo-Pacific Ocean, Hawaiian Islands, and Strait of Mozambique.
All coral polyps have a basic shape. They are much like anemones with a cylindrical body attached to a substrate on one end, with the mouth in the center facing outwards. The mouth is surrounded by small tentacles. They extend these tentacles, generally at night, to feed.
Because of the relationship corals have with algae, the habitat for reef-building corals includes clear, shallow, warm waters – optimal photosynthetic conditions for the zooxanthellae. Lush coral reefs thrive at 60-90 feet deep, but can extend as deep as 200 feet. Deep-sea corals can be found at depths up to 9,000 feet! They also need a specific temperature range (68°-82° F).
Most corals have single-celled algae, called zooxanthellae, living inside of its body, and they need this algae in order to survive. The two organisms have a mutualistic relationship, meaning both organisms benefit by living together. The zooxanthellae receive carbon dioxide from the coral in order to photosynthesize while the coral receives oxygen and various nutrients as byproducts of the zooxanthellae’s photosynthesis. Coral receives the majority of its nutritional and metabolic needs from the zooxanthellae. The fact that corals have algae inside them that photosynthesize is why they often inhabit the clear water near the surface, where there is plenty of sunlight.
Many different animals will graze on coral, including various types of worms, sea slugs, sea stars, triggerfish, filefish, parrotfish, and butterfly fish.
Some corals reproduce in different ways. Some reproduce asexually by budding off from parent polyps, while others perform brooding. In this method, only male polyps release gametes into the water. The sperm sinks, is taken up by females, and the larvae is produced inside the female. The female then spits the larvae out, and the larvae will eventually settle and grow.
Corals around the world are subject to a number of threats. Corals are very sensitive to environmental conditions, and climate change can induce extreme stress on them. When water temperatures increase beyond normal levels, zooxanthellae begin to produce toxic substances, causing the coral to expel them. Without the algae, the corals are turned transparent, and all that can be seen is the white calcium carbonate skeleton (a process called coral bleaching). The polyps will die soon after bleaching if the algae is not replenished. Scientists have also demonstrated that bleaching can be caused by changing ocean pH and salinity.
Corals are very delicate animals. Entire colonies can be destroyed by storms, waves, or contact with a SCUBA diver. Pollution of their waters can cause water clarity to go down, diminishing the amount of photosynthesis that zooxanthellae can perform.
Because of these threats, worldwide coral reefs are, and have been, on the decline. The Status of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the World in 2008 reported that the world has lost 19% of worldwide coral cover, with an additional 20% in danger of being lost in the next 40 years. In the United States, 50% of coral reefs are considered in “fair” or “poor” condition.
Many organizations have programs that help encourage the conservation of corals worldwide. These organizations include governmental bodies, non-profit environmental groups, and proactive citizens.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are another tool used for coral conservation. MPAs can, among other things, place regulations on the contact that people can and cannot have with live corals in certain areas. Diving and snorkeling operations worldwide stress that those that enter the water do not touch corals, as the slightest contact can destroy their flesh and/or give the colony an infection.
For one example of how an ordinary person can assist in coral conservation, look at the Coral Restoration Foundation. Founded by a former commercial fisherman, Ken Nedimyer, the CRF grows coral in underwater nurseries off the coast of Key Largo and then “plants” them in the wild. It is efforts like this, by ordinary people, that help to conserve corals, some of the most important animals in the marine ecosystem
Join MaryEllen and Rebecca Bray, as they talk about coral reef ecosystems and how you can help preserve these valuable ecosystems just by carpooling!
Join Rebecca Bray, Mystic Aquarium's coral aquarist, as she answers some frequently asked questions on corals and what it takes to care for them at the aquarium.
Scientific Name: Phylum Cnidaria
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