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Did You Know That Corals Are Animals? Here Are 10 Fun Facts About Them

Did You Know That Corals Are Animals? Here Are 10 Fun Facts About Them

Today, 8 June, is World Ocean Day so let’s get to know our corals better and what we can do to help save them from extinction.

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Apart from World Ocean Day on 8 June every year, did you know that June is a month to appreciate all things about the ocean? Every year, we raise awareness about the vital importance of our oceans and the role they play in sustaining a healthy planet.

Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia is the richest and most biodiverse coral reef on Earth.
(Credit: Carlos Fernandez-Cid / Flickr)

In conjunction with World’s Ocean Day today, let’s learn a bit about the rainforest of the sea – the corals. Actually, most nations also denote 1 June as World’s Reef Day and 9 June as Coral Triangle Day. June is all about those under the sea, baby!

Since we’re talking all about corals, here are 10 amazing fun facts about them that you might not know of:

1. They’re animals, not plants

Corals may look like plants and “take root” on the ocean floor like plants do, but they’re actually classified as animals. This is because they don’t make their own food, as plants do. In fact, they’re cousins of animals like jellyfish and sea anemones!

They’re also considered colonial organisms, which means individuals grow into a large living structure while being connected to each other.

2. They eat plankton

Corals have thousands of cylindrical-bodied polyps that have a single opening each which serves as both the mouth and anus.

The opening is surrounded by tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths. They feed on small fish and plankton.

A close-up of tiny polyps.
(Credit: Elias Levy, Yohancha / Flickr)

For another source of energy, they also rely on algae (symbiosis by living inside the coral) to provide them with food (carbohydrates) from the process of photosynthesis.

3. They can’t move but they can swim?

Corals are sessile animals, meaning, they permanently attach themselves to the ocean floor once they’re adults, so they cannot move. However, corals in the larval or baby life stage can swim!

When corals reproduce, they release sperm and eggs (this event is called coral spawning) into the water and form tiny baby-swimming coral larvae (planula) when they fertilize.

Coral spawning is when corals release their sperm and eggs at the same time to fertilize around them.
(Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reefs Studies / Flickr)

The babies can ride ocean currents and when they find a new suitable place to live, they will swim down and attach themselves to the bottom and grow into a new coral colony.

4. They come in many shapes, sizes & colours

There are about six thousand species of corals around the world and they come in various shapes, sizes, texture and colours.

They can either be hard or soft-bodied corals and are divided further into different types. Some are thought to resemble deer antlers, trees, giant fans, city skylines, brains and honeycombs.

Brain coral (upper left). Sea Fan coral (upper right). Elkhorn coral (below left). Branching coral (below right).
(Credit: Roban Cramer, NOAA Photo Library, Carlos Fernandez-Cid / Flickr)

For example, a brain coral is hard and has maze-like patterns weaving across its shape. Sea fans are soft corals that have giant flat fans which wave gently back and forth with the water’s current.

5. Home to 25% of marine life

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. They can form a living colony as big as a car or a house. They are also one of the world’s largest living structures and can even be seen from outer space (The Great Barrier Reef).

Hence, they are often considered ecosystem architects or engineers for constructing the physical spaces where some animals live.

(Credit: Flickr)

An estimated 25% of all marine life, including over 4,000 species of fish, are dependent on coral reefs at some point in their life cycle. They find shelter, food, reproduce and rear their young in the many nooks and crannies formed by corals.

6. They’re older than dinosaurs!

Corals may have teamed up with the microscopic algae which live inside them as much as 160 million years ago. The reef algae may have weathered significant environmental changes over time, including the mass extinction that wiped out most dinosaurs.

In great environmental conditions, coral colonies have been documented to live for hundreds or thousands of years. Some can live up to 5,000 years. In perfect conditions, researchers think they could live forever.

Diverse corals in Raja Ampat.
(Credit: Carlos Fernandez-Cid / Flickr)

This is because they grow very slowly, at an average rate of just two centimetres per year!

7. Algaes make them colourful

By itself, the skeleton is ghostly white. It’s the algae (called zooxanthellae) living in the skeleton that gives it its colour.

These zooxanthellae produce pigment, and because they reside in the clear tissue of the polyp, the pigments are visible, and the corals get their beautiful colours.

They can be seen in colours like purple, green, blue, red and even fluorescent ones.

8. Malaysia’s in the great Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle is one of the richest centres of biodiversity on the planet, which is a 6 million km2 triangular area spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands.

(Credit: WWF)

It has the largest coral diversity (76% of coral species) in the world and is home to 30% of the planet’s coral reefs. It’s actually 10 times as biodiverse as the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s also home to 6 out of 7 species of marine turtles and even migrating whales!

9. They’re white because they’re stressed

When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. This event is called coral bleaching.

Bleached staghorn corals (left) & bleaching brain corals (right).
(Credit: Eco Cafe’ Pranburi, NOAA’s National Ocean Service / Flickr)

When a coral bleaches, it is not dead yet. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress (vulnerable to diseases & starvation) and are subject to mortality if preventive steps are not taken.

10. Climate change is the biggest threat to them

Aside from water pollution, warming waters due to climate change are putting immense stress on our vulnerable coral populations.

Half of the world’s coral has already died in the last 70 years since 1950 according to a study. In fact, in the next 30 years by the year 2055, scientists predict that 90% of the world’s coral will disappear due to severe annual bleaching.

In Malaysia, massive bleaching events happened multiple times which were in 1998, 2010, 2014-2016 and most recently in 2019-2020.

Bleached Staghorn corals.
(Credit: Stop Adani / Flickr)

If this trend continues, not only will our marine life be affected, but humans will also suffer. Coral reefs provide food and income for hundreds of millions of people through fisheries and tourism. They also act as a barrier to protect our shores from up to 90% of potentially damaging waves and flooding.

Hence, with 25% of marine life gone, some species on your seafood plate will go extinct in the future if we don’t act now.

READ MORE: M’sia Is Running Out of Seafood, And It’s All Your Fault

What can you do to help?

Not all of us can do extensive research and help the corals directly like professionals do, but each individual plays an important role in conserving the environment when we work together.

Here are things that the public can do that would ultimately make a difference in the long run:

  • Be aware and spread the awareness to others too
  • Dive responsibly when you visit them
  • Don’t touch or step on them
  • Avoid anchoring your boat on the reef
  • Don’t leave unwanted fishing nets or trash in the ocean or on the beach
  • Avoid wearing sunscreens with chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate as they cause corals to bleach
  • Minimize the use of fertilizers as chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus can lead to coral bleaching too when they finally end up in the oceans
  • Volunteer for beach clean-ups
  • Make conscious decisions when buying aquarium fish – make sure they’re collected in a sustainable manner
  • Support companies with sustainability goals that put the environment first

Small steps do matter. Let’s save our coral reefs together.

READ MORE: Aquaria KLCC Donates RM200,000 To UMT For Phase 2 Of Coral Conservation Campaign

READ MORE: Help Coral Reef Restoration By Watching This Short Video

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