What Are Coral Reefs?

What are coral reefs? Although the general public has recently gained wide exposure to coral reefs and reef life through numerous high quality documentaries, the term is not so easily defined in words alone, and the answer to that seemingly simple question can vary widely depending upon one’s perspective.

A recent Internet search for the answer to the question “what are coral reefs?” yielded the following definition: “complex tropical marine ecosystems consisting chiefly of compacted coral together with algal material and biochemically deposited magnesium and calcium carbonates”.

While such definitions may be technically correct and useful in certain contexts, they do little to convey to the uninitiated any appreciation for the many unique aspects of reef structure, marine life, or natural beauty. These are things that must be seen (preferably in person) to be truly comprehended.

A shallow coral reef in The Bahamas.

So, can we come up with a more generally useful answer to the question, “what are coral reefs”? They are certainly far more than simply the piles of “living rocks” many associate with the term.

More accurately, coral reefs should be considered from a far more holistic perspective. They are extensive marine ecosystems consisting of a number of quite different kinds of habitats. These include areas composed not only of hard corals, but other types of substrates as well.

These differing areas form unique mosaics of habitat types that at larger scales can be seen as a series of “coral reef zones“; parallel adjoining regions of the coral reef ecosystem that extend from the shore to the outermost limits of coral growth (including the waters above). While these habitat types differ from one another to varying degrees, all are nonetheless both structurally and functionally interconnected.

As a whole, coral reef ecosystems serve as home for a concentration of biodiversity unmatched in any other type of marine ecosystem. In the richest of all regions of coral reef development (central Indo-Pacific), a single acre of coral reef habitat may harbor many types of marine algae, hundreds of brightly hued fish species, and thousands of different kinds of invertebrate animals.

From the more aesthetic perspective of the average amateur naturalist, snorkeler, or scuba diver, one could more simply say that coral reefs are among the most beautiful and colorful of our planet’s ecosystems, filled with colorful arrays of fishes, corals, and all manner of other fascinating life forms. By far, they are the best places for the average ocean enthusiast to explore underwater.

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