Coral Reefs are among the most ancient of Earth's natural wonders. Because they are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet--second only to the great rain forests of the world--coral reefs are aptly and often referred to as "rain forests of the sea." They are important to sustaining the life cycles of thousands of marine species, to providing protection to shorelines and inhabitants living near coastal waters, to the economic survival of coastal communities and to supporting human life through development of pharmaceuticals to treat life-threatening diseases.
The vast majority of people mistakenly think of coral reefs as inanimate rock formations, however, coral reefs are actually comprised of living creatures known as coral polyps. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "A coral polyp is a delicate, limestone-secreting animal. The limestone serves as a skeleton that either is embedded within the living tissue of the coral or encloses the animal." Various species of coral produce unique types of coral structures with different colors and textures, such as the soft, flexible sea fan or the hard coral Meandrina, with vertical wall-like segments that resemble an accordion.
Coral reefs are of the utmost importance in terms of biodiversity, furnishing protection and food to an enormous variety of organisms and other sea life such as starfish, sea urchins, jellyfish and sea anemones. For example, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia is home to more than 400 types of coral, which shelter more than 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusk. It also serves as habitat for endangered species, such as the sea cow and the large green sea turtle, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The Great Barrier Reef and the coastal area of Belize, among other reef systems are among the 176 natural properties listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List and are considered to have "outstanding universal value."
Coral reefs serve as natural barriers between wave surges produced by storms and shorelines throughout the world. Healthy coral reefs protect the land from erosion, decrease the chances of property destruction and loss of human life. Another environmentally important role coral reefs play is related to scientific study. According to the U.S. EPA , "Coral reefs and their associated communities of sea grasses, mangroves and mudflats are sensitive indicators of water quality and the ecological integrity of the ecosystem." This means reefs can be monitored to identify changes in water quality, such as temperature, salinity and chemical properties to aid in the study of human impact on watersheds and reef systems for the protection of vital marine resources.
Coral reefs are important to many coastal communities as nurseries for thousands of species and fisheries providing food for people who depend on subsistence fishing. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program, the commercial value of fisheries from coral reefs in U.S. coastal waters is more than $100 million. Home to many colorful fish, coral, lobsters, crabs, clams, sea horses, sea turtles and reef sharks, among other species, coral reef ecosystems, which are popular sites for scuba diving, snorkeling and recreational fishing, generate millions of dollars in revenue through tourism for local economies.
Amid the coral reefs, researchers have discovered chemical properties used in the development of various medicines. Medicines that have already been developed from organisms found in the coral reefs include a painkiller derived from cone snail venom, according to NOAA coral reef ecologist Andrew W. Bruckner. In Issues in Science and Technology Online, Bruckner writes: "The antiviral drugs Ara-A and AZT and the anticancer agent Ara-C, developed from extracts of sponges found on a Caribbean reef, were among the earliest modern medicines obtained from coral reefs. Other products, such as Dolostatin 10, isolated from a sea hare found in the Indian Ocean, are under clinical trials for use in the treatment of breast and liver cancers, tumors, and leukemia.
Protect coral reefs by following simple conservation tips such as recycling. Do not litter and pick up trash when you see it. Dispose of hazardous materials, such as petroleum products, properly rather than dumping them in storm drains or in landfills. When visiting coastal areas respect the reefs by watching where you walk at low tide or as you enter the water ,and do not touch live coral.