Although corals look like strong sturdy rocks, they are in fact very fragile creatures. The actual layer of ‘live tissue’ on a coral colony is very thin, therefore touching it or knocking it with fins can scratch this layer of tissue off and cause scarring. Most corals have a special mucus they cover themselves with. Studies say that this mucus helps the coral combat infections by containing antibacterial agents, protects the coral from harmful UV sun rays by containing agents similar to what we use as sunscreen. It stops them from drying out and keeps the coral moist when exposed at low tide, and can also help the coral shed sediment. The mucus can be wiped off through contact. This therefore puts the coral at risk of being exposed to all the above factors. Studies show that if a coral is injured, death is not instantaneous, however slowly infections can take hold and the coral generally dies within 3-5 months.
The variety of marine life and protected beaches supported by coral reefs provide an inviting setting for sightseers, sunbathers, snorkellers and scuba divers. In fact, there are more than 8.5 million certified scuba divers in the United States alone who spend money on dive vacations each year. For residents of coral reef areas that depend on income from tourism, reef destruction creates a significant loss of employment in the tourism, marine recreation and sport fishing industries.
Coral reefs are also a significant source of protein for millions of people. For people who live in coral reef areas, coral reefs are part of their loves, providing the main part of their diet through fishing resources. Reefs are also directly linked with traditional, spiritual and cultural values of many people who live in reef areas.
Another benefit that people receive from coral reefs is the guard they keep on our coastlines. Reefs serve as a buffer, protecting inshore areas from the pounding of ocean waves. Without coral reefs, many beaches and buildings would become vulnerable to wave action and storm damage. In one instance, when the coral and sand was mined away in the Maldives, it cost $10 million USD per kilometre to build a wall to protect the coastline.
Just like species in the rain forest, reef animals and plants contain medicinal compounds, many of which are just being discovered. Several important drugs have already been developed from chemicals found in coral reef organisms. The most famous of these is AZT, a treatment for people with HIV infections, which is based on chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge.
Unique compounds from coral reefs have also yielded treatments for cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, leukaemia and skin cancer. In addition, coral’s unique skeletal structure has been used to make our most advanced forms of bone grafting materials. Amazingly, more than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms. The beautiful and fragile creatures of our coral reefs have the potential to make even greater contributions to our lives by providing new cures for life threatening diseases.
Coral reefs provide shelter for nearly one quarter of all known marine species. Over the last 350 million years, reefs have evolved into one of the largest and most complex ecosystems on the planet. The reefs are home to 4,000 species of fish, 700 species of corals and thousands other forms of plants and animal life. Scientists estimate that, in total, more than 1 million species of plants and animals are associated with the coral reef ecosystem.
This is part 2 of 4 in the Coral Reefs series.