Coral Bleaching Essay

1357 words - 5 pages

Coral Bleaching

Coral reefs are the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet. There are more than 25,000 known species of organisms and countless others that have yet to be identified (Helvarg, 2000). Reefs thrive on the shallow edge of tropical seas, most often on the eastern edge of continents along warm water currents that brush the coasts. Reefs cannot live in cold waters and are limited by ocean depth and available sunlight. Coral is the foundation of the reef community, providing a three-dimensional structure where thousands of species of vertebrates and invertebrates live and feed. Some species of coral are hard, while others soft. Some are branched, yet others are compact and rounded. Coral is made up of large communities of tiny jellyfish like polyps. These polyps absorb calcium from the sea water and secrete a hard limestone skeleton. At night the polyps extend sticky, stinging tentacles from their skeletons to capture and consume small floating organisms such as zooplankton. Every coral has a two-stage life cycle: the larva, and the polyp. The larval stage is free swimming, and the polyp is stationary. Ocean currents carry the larva from the stationary parent polyp to any hard, clean, silt-free surface where, if the conditions are perfect, the larva grows into a coral forming polyp, never to move again (Levin, 1999). One of the most valuable resources for coral polyps are algae. Some live on the coral skeletons, but one type in particular, zooxanthellae, lives inside the tissue of the polyps. Zooxanthellae makes up about half the weight of the fleshy polyps and are not only a valuable food resource, but they are responsible for the brilliant colors associated with coral. When coral looses these precious colors it turns white, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. The purpose of this paper is to compare the notion of coral bleaching in scientific literature and studies to those in the popular press.
Coral bleaching is normally characterized by the expulsion of the zooxanthellae algae, loss of algal pigmentation, or both. Coral bleaching events have had serious effects on corals and reefs worldwide. What is crucial to the understanding of zooxanthellae expulsion and bleaching is how the density of zooxanthellae within the coral is changing, if at all, under the prevailing range of environmental conditions (Gates and Edmunds, 1999). Over the last twenty years, there has been a dramatic increase in both the frequency and intensity of coral bleaching events. Sixty major bleaching events have been reported between 1960 and 1979, whereas only nine were reported prior to 1979 (Huppert and Stone, 1998). Given the dependence of the coral on this symbiotic algae, it is important to determine the cause of these bleaching events. According to Helvarg (2000, p.12):
"Coral reefs… are fragile structures living within a narrow range of temperature, clarity, salinity and chemistry. Even a slight increase in ocean...

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