What are Coral Reefs?


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 In this photo, several fish are swimming among coral. The coral at the front of the photo is blue with branched arms. Further back are anvil-shaped corals.
Coral reefs are formed by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral organisms, which are marine invertebrates in the phylum Cnidaria. (credit: Terry Hughes)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Coral reefs are ocean ridges formed by marine invertebrates, comprising mostly cnidarians and molluscs, living in warm shallow waters within the photic zone of the ocean. They are found within 30˚ north and south of the equator. The Great Barrier Reef is perhaps the best-known and largest reef system in the world—visible from the International Space Station! This massive and ancient reef is located several miles off the northeastern coast of Australia. Other coral reef systems are fringing islands, which are directly adjacent to land, or atolls, which are circular reef systems surrounding a former landmass that is now underwater. The coral organisms (members of phylum Cnidaria) are colonies of saltwater polyps that secrete a calcium carbonate skeleton. These calcium-rich skeletons slowly accumulate, forming the underwater reef. Corals found in shallower waters (at a depth of approximately 60 m or about 200 ft) have a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic unicellular algae. The relationship provides corals with the majority of the nutrition and the energy they require. The waters in which these corals live are nutritionally poor and, without this mutualism, it would not be possible for large corals to grow. Some corals living in deeper and colder water do not have a mutualistic relationship with algae; these corals attain energy and nutrients using stinging cells called cnidocytes on their tentacles to capture prey.

It is estimated that more than 4,000 fish species inhabit coral reefs. These fishes can feed on coral, the cryptofauna (invertebrates found within the calcium carbonate substrate of the coral reefs), or the seaweed and algae that are associated with the coral. In addition, some fish species inhabit the boundaries of a coral reef; these species include predators, herbivores, and planktivores, which consume planktonic organisms such as bacteria, archaea, algae, and protists floating in the pelagic zone.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e


Habitat complexity influences selection of thermal environment in a common coral reef fish

Coral reef species, like most tropical species, are sensitive to increasing environmental temperatures, with many species already living close to their thermal maxima. Ocean warming and the increasing frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves are challenging the persistence of reef-associated species through both direct physiological effects of elevated water temperatures and the degradation and loss of habitat structure following disturbance. Understanding the relative importance of habitat degradation and ocean warming in shaping species distributions is critical in predicting the likely biological effects of global warming. Using an automated shuttle box system, we investigated how habitat complexity influences the selection of thermal environments for a common coral reef damselfish, Chromis atripectoralis. In the absence of any habitat (i.e. control), C. atripectoralis avoided temperatures below 22.9 ± 0.8°C and above 31.9 ± 0.6°C, with a preferred temperature (T pref) of 28.1 ± 0.9°C. When complex habitat was available, individual C. atripectoralis occupied temperatures down to 4.3°C lower (mean ± SE; threshold: 18.6 ± 0.7°C; T pref: 18.9 ± 1.0°C) than control fish. Conversely, C. atripectoralis in complex habitats occupied similar upper temperatures as control fish (threshold: 31.7 ± 0.4°C; preference: 28.3 ± 0.7°C). Our results show that the availability of complex habitat can influence the selection of thermal environment by a coral reef fish, but only at temperatures below their thermal preference. The limited scope of C. atripectoralis to occupy warmer environments, even when associated with complex habitat, suggests that habitat restoration efforts in areas that continue to warm may not be effective in retaining populations of C. atripectoralis and similar species. This species may have to move to cooler (e.g. deeper or higher latitude) habitats under predicted future warming. The integration of habitat quality and thermal environment into conservation efforts will be essential to conserve of coral reef fish populations under future ocean warming scenarios.

Keywords: Behaviour; ocean warming; range shift; teleost fish; temperature preference; temperature threshold.


Spatial heterogeneity of coral reef benthic communities in Kenya

Spatial patterns of coral reef benthic communities vary across a range of broad-scale biogeographical levels to fine-scale local habitat conditions. This study described spatial patterns of coral reef benthic communities spanning across the 536-km coast of Kenya. Thirty-eight reef sites representing different geographical zones within an array of habitats and management levels were assessed by benthic cover, coral genera and coral colony size classes. Three geographical zones were identified along the latitudinal gradient based on their benthic community composition. Hard coral dominated the three zones with highest cover in the south and Porites being the most abundant genus. Almost all 15 benthic variables differed significantly between geographical zones. The interaction of habitat factors and management levels created a localised pattern within each zone. Four habitats were identified based on their similarity in benthic community composition; 1. Deep-Exposed Patch reef in Reserve areas (DEPR), 2. Deep-Exposed Fringing reefs in Unprotected areas (DEFU), 3. Shallow Fringing and Lagoon reefs in Protected and Reserve areas (SFLPR) and 4. Shallow Patch and Channel reefs (SPC). DEPR was found in the north zone only and its benthic community was predominantly crustose coralline algae. DEFU was found in central and south zones mainly dominated by soft corals, Acropora, Montipora, juvenile corals and small colonies of adult corals. SFLPR was dominated by macroalgae and turf algae and was found in north and central zones. SPC was found across all geographical zones with a benthic community dominated by hard corals of mostly large colonies of Porites and Echinopora. The north zone exhibits habitat types that support resistance properties, the south supports recovery processes and central zone acts as an ecological corridor between zones. Identifying habitats with different roles in reef resilience is useful information for marine spatial planning and supports the process of designing effective marine protected areas.


Spatial distribution and feeding substrate of butterflyfishes (family Chaetodontidae) on an Okinawan coral reef

Coral reefs support diverse communities, and relationships among organisms within these communities are quite complex. Among the relationships, clarifying the habitat association and foraging substrate selection relative to habitat characteristics is of central importance to ecology since these two aspects are the fundamentals for survival and growth of organisms. The aims of the present study were to investigate the spatial distribution and feeding substrate selection of 14 species of butterflyfishes on an Okinawan coral reef in Japan. Species-specific spatial distributions varied with habitat characteristics (e.g., encrusting corals, massive corals, branching Acropora and rock). For feeding substrates, seven species of obligate coral polyp feeders exhibited significant positive selectivity for tabular Acropora, corymbose Acropora, encrusting corals and massive corals but significant negative selectivity for dead corals, coral rubble and rock. Among six species of facultative coral polyp feeders, two species exhibited significant positive selectivity for encrusting corals and massive corals, and one species showed significant positive selectivity for dead corals as feeding substrates. In contrast, three species exhibited no significant positive selectivity for any feeding substrates. A similar result was observed for one non-coralline invertebrate feeder. Among the 14 species, 12 species showed a relatively close relationship between spatial distribution and feeding substrates but the remaining two species did not. The present study is the first study to elucidate species-specific spatial distributions and feeding substrate selection of butterflyfishes on an Okinawan coral reef. The results of the present study suggest that diverse substrates, including various types of living corals (especially encrusting corals, massive corals, tabular Acropora, corymbose Acropora and branching Acropora) and non-coralline substrates (rock) are the primary determinants of spatial distributions and feeding sites. Thus, diverse substrates are important for maintaining high species diversity of butterflyfishes and changes of the substrates would likely change the spatial patterns and foraging behavior, although species-specific responses may be found, depending on their species-specific dependence on vulnerable substrates.

Keywords: Benthic animal feeder; Butterflyfishes; Coral polyp feeder; Coral reefs; Feeding behavior; Spatial distribution; Substrate diversity.


Body size determines eyespot size and presence in coral reef fishes

Numerous organisms display conspicuous eyespots. These eye-like patterns have been shown to effectively reduce predation by either deflecting strikes away from nonvital organs or by intimidating potential predators. While investigated extensively in terrestrial systems, determining what factors shape eyespot form in colorful coral reef fishes remains less well known. Using a broadscale approach we ask: How does the size of the eyespot relate to the actual eye, and at what size during ontogeny are eyespots acquired or lost? We utilized publicly available images to generate a dataset of 167 eyespot-bearing reef fish species. We measured multiple features relating to the size of the fish, its eye, and the size of its eyespot. In reef fishes, the area of the eyespot closely matches that of the real eye; however, the eyespots “pupil” is nearly four times larger than the real pupil. Eyespots appear at about 20 mm standard length. However, there is a marked decrease in the presence of eyespots in fishes above 48 mm standard length; a size which is tightly correlated with significant decreases in documented mortality rates. Above 75-85 mm, the cost of eyespots appears to outweigh their benefit. Our results identify a “size window” for eyespots in coral reef fishes, which suggests that eyespot use is strictly body size-dependent within this group.

Keywords: body size; constraints; coral reef fishes; eyes; eyespots; ocellus.



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