Let’s start with the basics: coral reefs are made from small animals called polyps. To form their skeleton-like structure they secrete limestone. The polyps are always on the outside of the limestone structure and as long as they are living and healthy the reef will keep growing.
Just like us those little polyps get hungry and will eat zooplankton and phytoplankton. Another way they obtain nutrients is through photosynthesis with help from zooxanthellae, which also give coral some color. This algae is not the only one who helps and benefits from the coral there is a type of goby that eat a competitive seaweed and crabs will defend the corals as their home. Coral reefs are like the cities of oceans; they provide structures for animals to hide in and for plants to grow on.
Unfortunately even with all their mutualistic relationships coral is still very much in trouble. When water temperatures and ocean acidification rise the coral polyps get stressed out because the zooxanthellae die. This is called coral bleaching; the zooxanthellae give the coral its color but when it can no longer survive the polyps die from the surface of the limestone structure and that white skeleton is all that’s left.
- Conserve water: The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater will pollute our oceans.
- Help reduce pollution: Walk, bike or ride the bus. Fossil fuel emissions from cars and industry raise lead to ocean warming which causes mass-bleaching of corals and can lead to widespread destruction of reefs.
- Research what you put on your lawn: Although you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef ecosystem, these products flow into the water system, pollute the ocean, and can harm coral reefs and marine life.
- Dispose of your trash properly: Don't leave unwanted fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach. Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can harm the reef and the fish.
- Support reef-friendly businesses: Ask the fishing, boating, hotel, aquarium, dive or snorkeling operators how they protect the reef. Be sure they care for the living reef ecosystem and ask if the organization responsible is part of a coral reef ecosystem management effort.
- Plant a tree: Trees reduce runoff into the oceans. You will also contribute to reversing the warming of our planet and the rising temperatures of our oceans. Help us Plant a Billion.
- Practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling: Do not touch the reef or anchor your boat on the reef. Contact with the coral will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef can kill it, so look for sandy bottom or use moorings if available.
- Volunteer for a coral reef cleanup: You don't live near a coral reef? Then do what many people do with their vacation: visit a coral reef. Spend an afternoon enjoying the beauty of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the Earth.
- Contact your government representatives: Demand they take action to protect coral reefs, stop sewage pollution of our oceans, expand marine protected areas and take steps to reverse global warming.
- Spread the word: Remember your own excitement at learning how important the planet's coral reefs are to us and the intricate global ecosystem. Share this excitement and encourage others to get involved.