Coral

About Coral

A variety of corals form an outcrop on Flynn Reef, Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Queensland, Australia. , image: Toby Hudson CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A variety of corals form an outcrop on Flynn Reef, Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Queensland, Australia. Image: Toby Hudson CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Corals are marine invertebrates in the class Anthozoa of phylum Cnidaria.

 

They typically live in compact colonies of many identical individual polyps. The group includes the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.

 

A coral group is a colony of myriad genetically identical polyps. Each polyp is a sac-like animal typically only a few millimeters in diameter and a few centimeters in length. A set of tentacles surround a central mouth opening. An exoskeleton is excreted near the base. Over many generations, the colony creates a large skeleton that is characteristic of the species.

 

 

What do corals eat

A closeup of a cavernous star coral ''Montastrea cavernosa''.
A closeup of a cavernous star coral ''Montastrea cavernosa''. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/reef2550.htm

Although some corals can catch small fish and plankton, using stinging cells on their tentacles, most corals obtain the majority of their energy and nutrients from photosynthetic unicellular dinoflagellates in the genus Symbiodinium that live within their tissues. 

 

These are commonly known as zooxanthellae and the corals that contain them are zooxanthellate corals. Such corals require sunlight and grow in clear, shallow water, typically at depths shallower than 60 metres.

 

Corals are major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the enormous Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland.

 

Other corals do not rely on zooxanthellae and can live in much deeper water, with the cold-water genus lophelia surviving as deep as 3,000 metres. 

 

Anatomy of a coral polyp.
Anatomy of a coral polyp. from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACoral_polyp.jpg

 

Feeding

 

Coral polyps also feed on a variety of small organisms, from microscopic zooplankton to small fish. The polyp's tentacles immobilize or kill prey using their nematocysts.

 

These cells carry venom which they rapidly release in response to contact with another organism. A dormant nematocyst discharges in response to nearby prey touching the trigger (cnidocil). A flap (operculum) opens, and its stinging apparatus fires the barb into the prey. The venom is injected through the hollow filament to immobilise the prey; the tentacles then manoeuvre the prey to the mouth.

 

The tentacles then contract to bring the prey into the stomach. Once the prey is digested, the stomach reopens, allowing the elimination of waste products and the beginning of the next hunting cycle. They can scavenge drifting organic molecules and dissolved organic molecules.

How do Corals reproduce?

Corals can be both gonochoristic (unisexual) and hermaphroditic, each of which can reproduce sexually and asexually.

 

Individual coral heads grow by asexual reproduction of polyps. Corals also breed sexually by spawning: polyps of the same species release gametes simultaneously over a period of one to several nights around a full moon. 

Sexual Reproduction of Corals

Reefs in the inner Great Barrier Reef spawn during the week after the full moon in October, while the outer reefs spawn in November and December. Its common soft corals belong to 36 genera.

Asexual Reproduction of Coral

Corals can reproduce asexually as well as sexually. In asexual reproduction, new clonal polyps bud off from parent polyps to expand or begin new colonies. This occurs when the parent polyp reaches a certain size and divides. This process continues throughout the animal’s life.

How do Coral Reefs form?

Starfish on coral. Tourists often photograph the natural beauty of the reef. wiki commons
Starfish on coral. Tourists often photograph the natural beauty of the reef. wiki commons

Each coral polyp is a sac-like animal typically only a few millimeters in diameter and a few centimeters in length.

 

 

As part of normal growth an exoskeleton is excreted near the base of each polyp. 

 

Over many generations, the colony creates a large skeleton that is characteristic of the species.

 

 

Corals are major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the enormous Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

 

Four hundred coral species, both hard corals and soft corals inhabit the reef. The majority of these spawn gametes, breeding in mass spawning events that are triggered by the rising sea temperatures of spring and summer, the lunar cycle, and the diurnal cycle. 

About Coral Bleaching

When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. Warmer water temperatures can result in coral bleaching. When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white.

 

This is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality. Coral bleaching is theorized to be a generalized stress response of corals that may be caused by a number of biotic and abiotic factors, including:

  • increased (most commonly due to global warming), or reduced water temperatures
  • oxygen starvation caused by an increase in zooplankton levels as a result of overfishing
  • increased solar irradiance (photosynthetically active radiation and ultraviolet light)
  • changes in water chemistry (in particular acidification caused by CO2 pollution)
  • increased sedimentation (due to silt runoff)
  • bacterial infections
  • changes in salinity
  • herbicides
  • low tide and exposure
  • cyanide fishing
  • elevated sea levels due to global warming
  • mineral dust from African dust storms caused by drought
  • four common sunscreen ingredients, that are nonbiodegradable, and can wash off of skin

 

Bleached branching coral (foreground) and normal branching coral (background). Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. CCBY Wiki
Bleached branching coral (foreground) and normal branching coral (background). Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. CCBY Wiki

While most of these triggers may result in localized bleaching events (tens to hundreds of kilometers), mass coral bleaching events occur at a regional or global scale and are triggered by periods of elevated thermal stress resulting from increased sea surface temperatures. The coral reefs that are more subject to continued bleaching threats are the ones located in warm and shallow water with low water flow. Physical factors that can prevent or reduce the severity of bleaching are available for the reefs located under conditions that include low light, cloud cover, high water flow and higher nutrient availability.

Resources

"About Coral, what do corals eat, how do corals grow and how do corals reproduce" modified from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral

About coral bleaching modified from: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_bleach.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral_bleaching

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