Sunday, September 28, 2014

Getting Ston(ey)ed with Coral

We're Back! The new Depth and Taxa headquarters (AKA my apartment) is all set up with a fancy desk and everything. Thanks everyone for your patience during my moving process. So without further ado let's get back in the swing of things.

There was some great news that came out of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last month. Twenty coral species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act. "What? That's horrible, more corals are at risk of extinction!" you might be saying, but listing as endangered actually benefits many animals that are at the brink. When organisms are imperiled by extinction listing them serves to provide legal protections for, not only them, but also their ecosystems. It's kind of like a silent alarm going off. When someone breaks in, property is at risk, but once the alarm goes off; the police can come and take steps to keep you from being burgled. It's about time we got serious about protecting coral too. Whole reefs are in danger of disappearing. One study suggests that coral cover in the region between Asia, Australia and Hawaii has decreased by 20% since just the early eighties.

So why do we care? Coral is certainly very pretty, but it's also a fascinating and essential organism.

Seen here being all three at once.
Courtesy Ian Robertson via Flickr

Coral is a massive and incredibly old group of animals. In fact just about anything you think of as ancient, corals were there for its beginning: Megalodon? Coral bemoans its short time on the planet. Dinosaurs? Yeah coral thought they were cool for a while. Coelocanths? They're just trying to steal coral's old-timey charm. What I'm getting at is that coral shows up very early in the fossil record, something like 480 million years ago!

So what's the secret to coral's success? Well diversity is a big part of it. There are something like 2,500 coral species on earth today. They can be hard, soft, individual, colonial, small, large, tropical, temperate, shallow, and deep.  The corals we're most familiar with, and all of those recently added to the endangered species list, are the shallow-living stony corals we like to brag about snorkeling among when we take a trip to the tropics.

All corals are a part of the cnidarian phylum which you may remember from the earlier post about jellyfish.You might also remember that the scyphozoa, hydrozoa, and cubozoa have two life stages: the free-living medusa and the stuck-on polyp. Corals are part of the anthozoa which are all the animals that have no medusa stage.

Perseus can get behind an animal that removes the medusa. (I will not apologize for this terrible joke)
Courtesy Wally Gobetz via Flickr

What stands stony corals out from other members of their phylum is their structure. Unlike sea anemones or jellies; stony corals actually secrete a skeleton. Coral that you might find at a jeweler's, or on the beach, is in fact the skeletal remains of a stony coral. So your beach house may have skeletons in its closet as well as on its coffee table. These skeletons, made of the same molecules as eggshells, are what allow for the gigantic reefs seen in tropical waters throughout the world. And amazingly every reef starts out as a single teeny-tiny coral polyp.

See when a coral mommy-daddy and daddy-mommy (many stony corals are hermaphroditic) love each other very much, and the season and tidal phase are right, they pour floating packets of sperm and eggs out of their bodies and into the water. It's all very romantic as thousands of other animals circle the waters around them devouring their genetic material before it even has a chance to mix. But luckily there are so many of these gamete (reproductive cells) balloons that some do make a new baby coral. At this point in their life baby corals are called a planula, they're microscopic, and they're covered in little cellular oars that allow them to move and find a place to settle. As they settle, baby coral metamorphoses into its adult form, but its still incredibly tiny and all alone. So our intrepid hero begins making itself some friends, by cloning.

"I'm pleased...we're's nice to meet you"
Courtesy Nhobgood via Wikimedia Commons

Each of those little anemone looking things up there is a clone of a single polyp that settled on a hard surface. If the entire colony is very large, then the original polyp probably settled decades ago. Some head's of coral have been estimated to be over a thousand years old! This slow growth rate is one of the reasons many coral reefs are at risk of extinction.

 Amazingly, although the clones are separate individuals from the other polyps they all share body tissues with one another. As the polyps catch prey with their stinging tentacles and eat it; the nutrients from that food are actually spread across the shared tissue so that the whole colony benefits. These shared tissues are also what secrete the hard skeleton of stony corals. And it's inside the corals' shared tissues that we can find the reason for their stony skeleton.

Just beneath the skin of stony corals lives one of a number of different algae. These single-celled seaweeds, called zooxanthellae, (pronounced zo-zan-thell-ee) are taken in by the coral deliberately because they can benefit one another greatly. The algae is protected from the thousands of mouths out in the plankton and the corals' wastes make great fertilizer. The coral also benefits because the algae's photosynthesis provides oxygen and nutrients both of which the coral can use. So the coral creates this elaborate skeleton in part to reach for the sun. The skeleton acts like the trunk and branches of a tree pushing the coral and its algae buddies towards the light. The constant competition for sun is what has driven the evolution of so many amazing forms and shapes of different corals.

Enough sun salutes to make a yogi weep for joy
Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife via Flickr

 This mutual symbiosis has been going on for so long and is so beneficial that some coral species can't feed themselves without their zooxanthellae. When people talk about coral bleaching this is what they mean. Something has gone wrong in the ecosystem, so the algae have either gone elsewhere or died. Leaving only skeletons behind. Luckily you can easily help prevent bleaching if you visit tropical areas. Danovaro et. al discovered that synthetic sunscreens actually encourage the growth of viruses that infect and kill zooxanthellae. So when you take that snorkeling trip make sure to use non-synthetics like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Often times these sunscreens are labeled as "coral safe" or "sensitive skin" so they're easily found.


Danovaro et. al, "Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections", Environmental Heatlth Perspectives Apr. 2008: 116(14): 441-447. Accessed via

Hoover, John P. "Hawai'i's Sea Creatures: A Guide to Hawai'i's Marine Invertebrates", pg 46-49, Mutual Publishing, 1999

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