Coral reefs—collective colonies of coral polyps—are among the most crucial supporters of life on planet Earth. Much in the way that forests shelter and support countless species of fungi, worms, small plants, insects, birds and mammals, coral reef systems create a thriving habitat for literally millions of species, including algae, sponge, anemones, fish, sea turtles and sharks—one quarter of all ocean life.
Yet most of us know little about these amazing creatures.
Corals are members of the phylum Cnidaria (ny-DARE-ee-uh), which also includes sea anemone and jellyfish. The Cnidarians appeared in the oceans about 500 million years ago, some 250 million years after their ancestor, the sponge. Cnidarians brought some important innovations to animal being: They evolved tentacles to reach out and perceive their surroundings, a mouth and stomach to take in and digest food, and elementary muscles and a network of nerve cells to create movement! Our own digestive, muscular and nervous systems evolve from theirs.
Cnidarians eat plankton or other food particles, small fish and crustaceans. Many are also nourished by photosynthetic algae that they harbor in their tentacles and bodies. These symbiotic algae also give cnidarians their radiant diversity of color.
Coral reefs are formed by communities of individual coral polyps that secrete limestone to create their interconnected skeletal systems, forming shapes such as elkhorn, brains or plates. Like ancient forests, mountains and canyons on land, they are among the wise elders of the ocean. As sentient beings, they represent the collective consciousness of millions of years, enduring architects who carry inherent knowledge that guides them to reach upwards toward the sun, building a new generation’s structure of perfect function, beautiful form and exuberant color upon the stones left by the generations before them. Carrying a legacy of ocean canyons, caves and walls through millennia, most coral reef systems are between five and ten thousand years old, and the ancestors of these systems were formed more than 250 million years ago! To get a sense of the time scale, the Grand Canyon and the first hominids began six million years ago, and the first homo sapiens appeared only 200,000 years ago.
Reef systems can span as long as 1400 miles/ 2300 kilometers—the size of the Great Barrier Reef on the northern coast of Australia, so large it can be seen from space.
Like forest trees, polyps in the coral reef share food and resources. And like forests, the coral reefs oxygenate their environments, pulling carbon dioxide from the water to help form their skeletons, and harboring oxygen-producing algae. And also like forests, they protect land from erosion, significantly calming waves before they reach the shoreline.
Recent studies suggest that as much as three-quarters of our remaining coral reefs are endangered by human activity.
Marine biologist and coral expert Kirsten Malhaver asserts that our recent past relationship with coral doesn’t need to be our future one, and that if we want to conserve our great coral reefs, we, the general public, need to know more about them—their history, who they are, and what they do! In this informative and poetic TED talk, she movingly describes some ways that scientists are helping to restore the coral reefs. A special thank you to oceanographer and Tensegrity® Facilitator-in-Training, Dr. Isabel Romero, for sharing it.
You can support these vital and beautiful creatures who so powerfully support you by contributing to these organizations, or through another organization or action of your choice:
Additionally, you can pause to consider: Who are the communities, ancestors, innovators, explorers, family members, friends and mentors whose integrity, attention and care have provided the structures that make your life, livelihood and dreams possible? How can you learn more about what they have done, and what they do, and thank them for what they have given?
You can share your findings and reflections here.