Rainforest of the Sea

It makes sense that the first highlighted topic should be the amazing "rainforest of the sea" that defines the environment of Ambergris Caye: the coral reef. Over 500 million years ago in warm tropical climates coral reefs formed. Today, coral reefs cover less than 0.2% of the ocean floor, but contain approximately 25% of the ocean's species. Approximately 5000 species of reef fish, and more than 2,500 species of coral have been identified…thus they are referred to as "rainforests" for their vast diversity of life. Reefs are formed when hundreds of hard coral colonies grow next to and on top of each other.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
So, what is coral? Coral is an invertebrate (animal without a backbone) marine organism of the class Anthozoa (phylum Cnidaria). There are two types of coral: hermatypes or hard corals that build reefs; and ahermatypes or corals that do not. The hard corals look like stones and the soft ones resemble plants, an example being sea fans. All coral is made up of polyps, tiny animals that resemble upside-down jellyfish. Polyps secrete a skeleton to support themselves and the term coral is used to describe the skeletal remains of these animals, particularly those of the hard corals, which form a limestone base that becomes the foundation of the reef. It is after hundreds of these hard coral colonies grow next to each other that a reef is formed. Astonishingly enough, the whole coral reef ecosystem has been built upon a tiny animal that is smaller in diameter than a common pencil eraser.

Since coral polyps grow in nutrient-poor water, they have great ecological significance because they provide a habitat for communities of fish and other marine life in waters that might otherwise be desolate and unproductive. In addition, as most San Pedro locals know, coral reefs provide food and protection from waves (Hurricane Mitch!). Despite their great importance and beauty, coral reefs are still being threatened around the world by human activities such as pollution, over fishing, boat groundings, and general carelessness of snorkelers and divers. In San Pedro, improvements such as a modified sewage system, the addition of mooring buoys for boats to anchor onto, and well-trained tour guides have help stave off major damage to our coral reef.

Check out Reef Brief next time when the mystery of coral spawning will be unraveled.

This Reef Brief was written by Ann Hayden.

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