Coral Reefs are Amazing

I am really looking forward to working with the public one day. Sure I can do research and there is so much potential for good there, but what really gets me excited is talking to other people about fish and ocean creatures. As a kid, whenever we visited an aquarium and got to hear the marine biologists talk about what they do and about the fish in their care, I thought they had the coolest job. I want that job!

I especially want to talk to people about coral reefs. I am sure that you’ve probably heard that coral reefs are disappearing and that they need to be protected. But you may not know what they are or why they’re so important. That’s something I really want to change, and since I don’t have my own aquarium job where I can speak to visitors and students (yet!!!) I am going to talk about it here!

Think of coral reefs like a huge underwater city for fish. The coral acts like apartment buildings!

I’m not going to get into the different types of reef (fringing, barrier, and atoll, for those who are curious) or how exactly the walls are formed. Because here is the important part: even in water that doesn’t have a lot of nutrients, coral can do OK for themselves. When they are larvae, they float all around looking for a hard place like submerged rock to attach themselves. They start attaching themselves to something and begin to grow up. Other coral latch on to the same place, and they do the same. Then they start reproducing. The area starts to expand with coral.

Once the “apartments” are there, other sea life can move in. Coral reefs are actually one of the most diverse ecosystems on our entire planet! Scientists believe that there could be up to 8 million species that we haven’t even discovered yet living in coral reefs in addition to the roughly 5,000 that we do know about. These reef communities provide fish and other sea life with food and shelter, helping them not only live somewhere they normally would not, but actually thrive.

Coral reefs are more than just something cool to see when you go snorkeling (although they are that). They actually help us out! They act as a barrier to protect nearby land against flooding and strong wave activity that would erode beaches. It also helps to keep nearby wetlands from drying out.

Unfortunately, coral reefs have lots of enemies. Mother nature, for one, can damage them with hurricanes that break apart coral. The lack of an ozone layer can expose sensitive coral to UV rays that dry them out and kill them. Global warming has also increased oceanic temperatures, which has killed off some coral. Toxic rain pollutes the water supply and can damage these amazing places. Reefs are hardy, and can often recover from a bad storm or two. But when you combine all these factors together, we’re asking too much of the coral and they often do not have ways to bounce back. That’s terrible for the fish, for the ocean, for us scientists who want to study them, but also every person on land who (often unknowingly) benefits from these amazing ocean cities.

Life Cycle of a Fish

When I was young, my parents took me to a carnival. There was the typical rides and games, and you needed tickets to do anything. My parents let me play a game where I could bounce a ping pong ball on a bunch of open fishbowls and if it landed on a colored one, I won a prize. I won the prize, and it turned out to be a goldfish.

Goldie, as he was called, was my first pet and my first experience with fish. Goldie didn’t last all that long – and I found out later that my parents had done that whole “replace the pet while she’s at school” bit at least once. But even if I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Goldie, he made a lasting impact on me and sparked my love of fish.

My parents, bless them, encouraged me. My mom took me to the library and let me check out the same book about taking care of fish. I knew that book by heart! There was one section on the life cycle of the fish, and I still remember it to this day. It’s actually pretty interesting.

Everyone knows that fish come from eggs. It’s kind of amazing how the process works, and that it even works at all! When they are spawning, female fish release eggs into the water. Depending on the species, they might have what’s considered a nest, but not all do. Male fish release something we call milt, which fertilizes some of the eggs.

Many eggs don’t even make it to maturity. Between environmental conditions, disease, and predators, most fish eggs don’t stand a chance. Those that do hatch feed from an attached yolk sack during their larval stage. Sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it? This helps fish survive, because unlike many other creatures, there are no parents around to care for them. Once the yolk sac is absorbed completely, the fish moves out of the larval stage and enters the fry stage.

That’s right, young fish are called fry!

Fry can find their own food sources and their whole job is to eat and grow. They’ll stay a fry for anywhere from a couple of months through about a year, depending on the species. If they make it past that, they become juvenile fish. This is essentially a fish’s tween years. Once they are able to reproduce, they become adults. For fish with short life spans, they can reach this mark in a year. Fish who live for longer periods, like the sturgeon, don’t hit this point until about 25.

It really is an interesting subject. There are so many things that have to work out just right in order for the egg to be fertilized, for it to survive long enough to hatch, then sustain themselves on the yolk sac as larva, and then somehow to make it through the fry and juvenile stage. One of the things I want to do is study these different variables and see what we can improve for fish whose species are threatened by extinction, especially those who play a large role in their habitat’s ecosystem.