What Are Coral Reefs?
The mention of coral reefs generally brings to mind warm climates, colorful fishes and clear waters. However, the reef itself is actually a component of a larger ecosystem. The coral community is really a system that includes a collection of biological communities, representing one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. For this reason, coral reefs often are referred to as the "rainforests of the oceans."
Corals themselves are tiny animals which belong to the groupcnidaria (the "c" is silent). Other cnidarians include hydras, jellyfish, and sea anemones. Corals are sessile animals, meaning they are not mobile but stay fixed in one place. They feed by reaching out with tentacles to catch prey such as small fish and planktonic animals. Corals live in colonies consisting of many individuals, each of which is called polyp. They secrete a hard calcium carbonate skeleton, which serves as a uniform base or substrate for the colony. The skeleton also provides protection, as the polyps can contract into the structure if predators approach. It is these hard skeletal structures that build up coral reefs over time. The calcium carbonate is secreted at the base of the polyps, so the living coral colony occurs at the surface of the skeletal structure, completely covering it. Calcium carbonate is continuously deposited by the living colony, adding to the size of the structure. Growth of these structures varies greatly, depending on the species of coral and environmental conditions-- ranging from 0.3 to 10 centimeters per year. Different species of coral build structures of various sizes and shapes ("brain corals," "fan corals," etc.), creating amazing diversity and complexity in the coral reef ecosystem. Various coral species tend to be segregated into characteristic zones on a reef, separated out by competition with other species and by environmental conditions.
Virtually all reef-dwelling corals have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with algae called zooxanthellae. The plant-like algae live inside the coral polyps and perform photosynthesis, producing food which is shared with the coral. In exchange the coral provides the algae with protection and access to light, which is necessary for photosynthesis. The zooxanthellae also lend their color to their coral symbionts. Coral bleaching occurs when corals lose their zooxanthellae, exposing the white calcium carbonate skeletons of the coral colony. There are a number of stresses or environmental changes that may cause bleaching including disease, excess shade, increased levels of ultraviolet radiation, sedimentation, pollution, salinity changes, and increased temperatures.
Because the zooxanthellae depend on light for photosynthesis, reef building corals are found in shallow, clear water where light can penetrate down to the coral polyps. Reef building coral communities also require tropical or sub-tropical temperatures, and exist globally in a band 30 degrees north to 30 degrees south of the equator. Reefs are generally classified in three types. Fringing reefs, the most common type, project seaward directly from the shores of islands or continents. Barrier reefs are platforms separated from the adjacent land by a bay or lagoon. The longest barrier reefs occur off the coasts of Australia and Belize. Atolls rest on the tops of submerged volcanoes. They are usually circular or oval with a central lagoon. Parts of the atoll may emerge as islands. Over 300 atolls are found in the south Pacific.
Coral reefs provide habitats for a large variety of organisms. These organisms rely on corals as a source of food and shelter. Besides the corals themselves and their symbiotic algae, other creatures that call coral reefs home include various sponges; molluscs such as sea slugs, nudibranchs, oysters, and clams; crustaceans like crabs and shrimp; many kinds of sea worms; echinoderms like star fish and sea urchins; other cnidarians such as jellyfish and sea anemones; various types of fungi; sea turtles; and many species of fish.