Imagine yourself observing one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. Thousands of species of plants and animals provide a dizzying array of color and motion. Massive structures provide a canopy that shelters hundreds of exotic species in a myriad of microclimates. As land-based observers, we almost automatically assume that this is a description of the rich ecosystem of a tropical rainforest. However, if we take ourselves off the safety of dry land and immerse ourselves in the ocean, we will find an equally dynamic environment in the depths of our world's coral reefs. As a Zoology major, I quickly decided to explore this biological component of the ocean environment. In the following paper, I will provide a general overview of coral reefs and examine the alarming depletion of coral and their ecological symbionts in a process known as coral bleaching.
As mentioned earlier, coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive of all communities on Earth. They are also the largest biological structures on the planet. The Great Barrier Reef, along the eastern coast of Australia, covers over 2000 kilometers and is said to be visible from the moon (Goreau, 1987). While the size of coral reefs can be enormous, their real impact is on a much smaller scale. Reefs function as food and shelter for fish and marine invertebrates. While the coral itself is an animal, through a symbiotic relationship with the unicellular algae, coral becomes the primary producer in its ocean ecosystem (Richmond 1993). The reefs are formed by calcium carbonate deposits produced by the coral polyps. According to the legendary Cousteau, in his book The Ocean World, tube worms and mollusks also donate their hard skeletons to the architecture of the growing reef (174). Biologically active compounds are also produced by reef dwelling organisms and posses antimicrobial and antiviral properties (Van Alstyne 1988). In fact, coral produces a natural sunscreen that is currently...
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