Coral Reef Symbiosis

Coral reef symbiosis has an important impact on the ocean’s ecosystem. To understand the importance of this relationship, the word symbiosis requires understanding. Symbiosis according to the New Heritage Dictionary is defined as a close prolonged association between two or more organisms; it is a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence. Coral reefs around the world are beautiful and fragile because of their need to maintain a balanced symbiotic relationship.

Coral has a symbiotic relationship between the tiny coral animals and the microscopic algae called zooxanthellae. These tiny coral animals are called polyps that resemble small columns. They have one end that attaches itself to the reef and the other end that floats freely close to the surface of the ocean water. Polyps secrete calcium carbonate skeletons and the actual tiny creature remains at the bottom of these cups during daylight hours.

The microscopic algae, the zooxanthellae adorn itself in bright colors of oranges, purples, greens, reds and other colors thrive in warm waters. Their colors are the result of their presence in the tissues of the polyps. Thus the symbiotic relationship is easy to view and allows scientists and environmentalist to gauge the health of the coral reef.

Coral animals cannot thrive in waters that are cooler than 65F or 18C and as the ocean temperatures rise or fall the effects begin to take place. There is also debate about other factors tha cause the polyps to die due to increased water acidity and higher UV rates in the sunshine. Algae flourish in the warm waters and actually provides the oxygen and additional nutrients to maintain the polyps’ health and well-being. The polyps provide to the zooxanthellae their bi products to assist in the process of photosynthesis, and hence coral reefs are found close to the surface of the ocean’s water.

Algae require sunshine to complete the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis according to the New American Heritage Dictionary is a process in green plants and certain other organisms (zooxanthallae) by which carbohydrates are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water using light as energy. Most forms of photosynthesis including the coral reef symbiotic relationship release oxygen.

This important symbiotic relationship affects other marine life as well. Clown fish are found in coral reefs. Another interesting relationship is between jellyfish and other fish immune to jelly fish stings that hide under the jellyfish in the columns awaiting fish and other creatures they prey upon. Coral reefs provide fish safe havens and maintain an important marine balance.

What is of major concern to scientists and environmentalists is the consequences of this symbiotic relationship between polup and zooxanthellae being disrupted for long periods of time. When the polyps are over stressed by sources such as pollution, over fishing or certain run offs they will eject the zooxanthallae from their columns. While short period ejections may not adversely or permanently harm the polyps, over a longer period of time the polyps die. White coral reefs are alarming proof where polyps have died and a valuable permanent part of the ecosystem has been permanently lost.