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Coral Reefs & How They Work

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Coral reefs are just like cities; a budding metropolis with intricate properties, inhabitants, and qualities that are often more than meets the eye. It would be misguided to assume what a city is like just by the street view. The same goes for a coral reef, according to Alex Brylske, Professor of Marine Science & Technology at Florida Keys Community College, and former senior editor at Dive Training Magazine. 

"Just as any city on earth is more than the concrete and asphalt that comprise it, a coral reef is much more than the sum of its parts," Brylske says. "The key to coming to know both cities and coral reefs is understanding the role of interaction, and how this interaction results in a community."

A lot of divers may misinterpret their knowledge of fish names and certain scientific properties as truly understanding how coral reefs function and thrive. Unraveling the mysteries of the coral reef is a relatively new concept, and there is still a lot for scientists to learn.

Let's start at the beginning.

Coral Reefs aren't just ecosystems; they're what scientists call a "super organism," forming the largest structures on Earth manufactured by living organisms. It's able to do this because of an amazing symbiotic relationship between the coral polyp and a single-celled algae that resides within the polyp's tissues. This algae (zooxanthellae or "zoox") enables a coral colony to function as a combination plant and animal.

Did you know? The water surrounding a coral reef is almost devoid of life. That's because coral reefs may be the best recyclers on Earth. When nutrients come their way, they grab hold and recycle with efficiency. Famed ecologist Eugene Odum says corals get their "meat" from the water in the form of plankton, and their "vegetables" from their own bellies.

It doesn't take much to throw a coral reef off -- they already live at their extreme limits, in relation to light, temperature, and nutrition. If the water gets too turbulent, warm, cold, etc., this can greatly affect the thriving qualities of a reef. That's why reefs are often affected by pollution or atmospheric changes.

But, as fragile as they are, they are exceptionally resilient. Few other organisms have survived for 200 million years on Earth, through many mass-extinctions and world-wide eradication. Each part of its system is vital, and there are so many parts of the coral reef that allow it to thrive. Removing one part of it, just like a small cog in a watch, would cause the whole super organism to misfire and malfunction.

Brylske reports that scientists are just beginning to understand that the loss of biodiversity in our oceans and seas, particularly due to overfishing, is the greatest risk that reefs might face. Pollution and climate change are other factors, but Brylske says that coral reefs' resilient nature may need a full cast of characters and inhabitants to do the jobs that nature intended.

So, what can you do? Brylske says the major assaults that humans are throwing at reefs include:

1) sedimentation from coastal construction and deforestation

2) the introduction of excessive amounts of nutrients, especially due to untreated or insufficiently treated waste and run-off

3) destruction of dependent nearshore habitats such as mangroves and sea grass beds

4) destructive fishing practices

To find ways you can help, visit Mote Marine Laboratory (Sarasota and Florida Keys) or Coral Restoration Foundation (Key Largo).

This blog was sourced from Dive Training Magazine- "Cities On the Bottom of the Sea: The Coral Reef as a Community" by Alex Brylske, originally published in May/June 2016.