What is a Coral Reef?

A coral reef is a living ecosystem that includes corals, fishes, invertebrates, and algae. It is the largest single living structure on Earth and is home to nearly 25% of all marine life.

It is a natural and essential part of the marine ecosystem and helps regulate carbon dioxide levels in the oceans.

It protects coastlines from storms and erosion, providing jobs and recreational opportunities for local communities and a source of food and new medicines. Its net economic value is estimated at tens of billions of dollars offsite link per year, making it an important resource for many people.

The nutrient-rich, warm water that corals need to thrive is available in shallow waters along the eastern coasts of most countries. However, in some areas, such as Southeast Asia, where the water is colder and more saline, corals are rarely found.

To survive, corals need a healthy ecosystem that provides shelter and protection from predators. They also need an abundance of nutrients and oxygen to sustain their growth. They need this supply of nutrients to build and maintain their protective, calcifying skeletons, which protect them from harsh, abrasive underwater conditions.

Corals use stinging cells to capture prey such as plankton, which is what they eat. They fire stinging barbs, called nematocysts, that stun and kill their targets before they engulf them.

They also have a strong, defensive, stinging tentacle that extends outward to capture other animals. These tentacles can extend up to a mile (1.6 km) from the coral.

These polyps have a mutualistic relationship with microscopic algae (dinoflagellates) of the genus Symbiodinium, which live symbiotically in their tissues. Through photosynthesis, these algae turn sunlight into sugars and oxygen and provide organic nutrients for the polyp in exchange for shelter.

It is a powerful partnership that enables the coral and its algae to recycle energy and nutrients effectively. The corals also help the algae by filtering out the toxins and other waste they produce from their metabolism.

The toxicity of the nematocysts, as well as their ability to pierce flesh and skin, makes them an excellent defense against larger predators such as sea stars or stingrays. Large numbers of these predators can devastate a coral reef.

Some coral species are hermaphrodites, producing both eggs and sperm at the same time. Others are gonochoric, creating colonies of either males or females. The reproductive cells in coral polyps, called mesenteries, are located on the stomach cavity and can be both asexually and sexually fertilized.

To reproduce, polyps need to have enough calcium in their diets to build the skeletons that protect them. To do this, they must consume calcium carbonate, which is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found in sand and other soft surfaces.

It is vital to protect coral from harmful organisms such as sewage and chemical fertilizers that runoff into the ocean. These substances contain nitrates and phosphates that can promote algae, which outcompete coral for space and oxygen. Algae have also been linked to the decline of coral reefs.

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