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Coral Reefs

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Coral reefs are ocean ridges formed by marine invertebrates living in warm shallow waters within the photic zone of the ocean. They are found within 30˚ north and south of the equator. The Great Barrier Reef is a well-known reef system located several miles off the northeastern coast of Australia. Other coral reefs are fringing islands, which are directly adjacent to land, or atolls, which are circular reefs surrounding a former island that is now underwater. The coral-forming colonies of organisms (members of phylum Cnidaria) secrete a calcium carbonate skeleton. These calcium-rich skeletons slowly accumulate, thus forming the underwater reef (Figure 20.29). Corals found in shallower waters (at a depth of approximately 60 m or about 200 ft) have a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic unicellular protists. The relationship provides corals with the majority of the nutrition and the energy they require. The waters in which these corals live are nutritionally poor and, without this mutualism, it would not be possible for large corals to grow because there are few planktonic organisms for them to feed on. Some corals living in deeper and colder water do not have a mutualistic relationship with protists; these corals must obtain their energy exclusively by feeding on plankton using stinging cells on their tentacles.


In this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) video (, marine ecologist Dr. Peter Etnoyer discusses his research on coral organisms.

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse biomes. It is estimated that more than 4000 fish species inhabit coral reefs. These fishes can feed on coral, the cryptofauna (invertebrates found within the calcium carbonate structures of the coral reefs), or the seaweed and algae that are associated with the coral. These species include predators, herbivores, or planktivores. Predators are animal species that hunt and are carnivores or “flesh eaters.” Herbivores eat plant material, and planktivores eat plankton.

Figure 20.29 Coral reefs are formed by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral organisms, which are marine invertebrates in the phylum Cnidaria. (credit: Terry Hughes) 

Evolution IN ACTION

Global Decline of Coral Reefs

It takes a long time to build a coral reef. The animals that create coral reefs do so over thousands of years, continuing to slowly deposit the calcium carbonate that forms their characteristic ocean homes. Bathed in warm tropical waters, the coral animals and their symbiotic protist partners evolved to survive at the upper limit of ocean water temperature.

Together, climate change and human activity pose dual threats to the long-term survival of the world’s coral reefs. The main cause of killing of coral reefs is warmer-than-usual surface water. As global warming raises ocean temperatures, coral reefs are suffering. The excessive warmth causes the coral organisms to expel their endosymbiotic, food- producing protists, resulting in a phenomenon known as bleaching. The colors of corals are a result of the particular protist endosymbiont, and when the protists leave, the corals lose their color and turn white, hence the term “bleaching.”

Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide further threaten the corals in other ways; as carbon dioxide dissolves in ocean waters, it lowers pH, thus increasing ocean acidity. As acidity increases, it interferes with the calcification that normally occurs as coral animals build their calcium carbonate homes.

When a coral reef begins to die, species diversity plummets as animals lose food and shelter. Coral reefs are also economically important tourist destinations, so the decline of coral reefs poses a serious threat to coastal economies.

Human population growth has damaged corals in other ways, too. As human coastal populations increase, the runoff of sediment and agricultural chemicals has increased, causing some of the once-clear tropical waters to become cloudy. At the same time, overfishing of popular fish species has allowed the predator species that eat corals to go unchecked.

Although a rise in global temperatures of 1°C–2°C (a conservative scientific projection) in the coming decades may not seem large, it is very significant to this biome. When change occurs rapidly, species can become extinct before evolution leads to newly adapted species. Many scientists believe that global warming, with its rapid (in terms of evolutionary time) and inexorable increases in temperature, is tipping the balance beyond the point at which many of the world’s coral reefs can recover.