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The beautiful white sand beaches and reefs of tropical areas around the world exist largely thanks to parrot fish droppings.

The Maldives form a constellation of almost 1,200 coral reef islands in the Indian Ocean. They have stunning white sand beaches surrounded by emerald blue water. And according to a new study, they may owe their existence to parrotfish. More specifically: to parrot fish poop. [C. T. Perry et al, Linking reef ecology to island building: Parrotfish identified as major producers of island-building sediment in the Maldives, in Geology]

If you've ever snorkeled near a coral reef, you've probably seen neon-colored parrotfish. Their name refers to their sharp, beaklike teeth. You may have heard them too. That's a parrot fish literally eating the reef's coral skeleton. It bites off tiny pieces of hard coral as it forages for algae.

[Perry:] "That gets taken into the fish. It's then milled. And it passes through their intestines and it's then excreted out the back end as clouds of sediment." Chris Perry, a marine geoscientist at the University of Exeter in the U.K.

[Perry:] "And that is then distributed onto the reef. And it's a way that you can convert coral substrate into sediment grade material."

In 2013, Perry and colleagues went to the Maldives to find out how the reef-which grows underwater-generates sediments that pile up, forming islands that rise above the water's surface. The team discovered that parrot fish play a critical role in this process: their waste accounts for a whopping 85% of all the sand produced on the reef.

[Perry:] "If you spend time on the reefs and you're following the parrot fish around, it's absolutely incredible how much sediment they're producing. So when you're got large populations of them, they can be very important in this respect."

The new results suggest that protecting parrot fish populations is essential for maintaining the Maldives, which already face threats from rising seas.

[Perry:] "If you take the parrot fish out of these systems you would basically be shutting down a very significant amount of the sort of supply chain for island-building sediment."

By the way, the beautiful white sand beaches in parts of Hawaii? Also largely parrot fish poop. Think about that next time you're spreading out your towel in Oahu.

Thanks for the minute. For Scientific American's 60-Second Science, I'm Julia Rosen

Scientific American