At the Butterfly Pavilion, coral reefs are represented by an aquarium—which is well known by children as our “Nemo and Dory” tank—located in the hallway outside the Water’s Edge exhibit. This tank houses two clown fish, a royal blue tang, a three-striped damsel fish, at least 6 species of soft and hard corals, and three elusive serpent stars. These animals are our chosen ambassadors to represent the world’s coral reefs to the Denver public.
A coral reef is a colony of animals, called corals, which live together in a grouping of polyps protected by hard limestone skeletons. Coral reefs are known as “rainforests of the ocean” because of the enormous diversity among the animals that live there. There are approximately 40 different phyla, or divisions, of animals on the planet; 32 of them are found in coral reefs, but only 9 are found in terrestrial rainforests. Because of this, coral reefs are perhaps the single most important building block for the rest of the world’s ecosystems; without coral reefs, habitats around the world may be threatened. Coral reefs exist off the coasts of about 100 countries in the world, and more than 500 million people use coral reefs for their food or livelihoods. Coral colonies produce up to $375 billion of annual revenue for people around the world.
The high diversity of life within coral reefs means that they may hold undiscovered resources for the cures of illnesses and diseases. Scientists have already discovered materials within coral reefs that help with bone grafts, cancer, and HIV treatments. Coral reefs also act as a natural barrier for the prevention of shoreline erosion in Florida, and in many other parts of the world. If these colonies of corals die, their ability to protect shorelines will be threatened.
Coral reefs are threatened worldwide. Reefs in 93 countries have been damaged or destroyed, which directly affects people and animals that require coral reefs for survival. 25 percent of all species of marine fish live in coral reefs and as these ecosystems are destroyed, these fish species start to disappear, which affects world food consumption (even in Colorado), ecotourism, and aquarium businesses. Pollution, global warming, and ocean acidification have the greatest effects on coral reef health, and destroy the algae that corals rely on for nutrients. As the algae are killed, the coral turns to a pale white, which is known as coral bleaching and can lead to permanent damage or death of the reef.
Needless to say, if these ecosystems are destroyed, the consequences will be severe. Here in Colorado, because many of our products are imported from areas that use coral reefs as a resource, we can help prevent coral bleaching by remembering to always reduce, reuse, and recycle. As we think about the future, coral reef protection is vital. If the current rate of destruction occurs, 70% of the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed by 2050. If you would like more information about coral reefs and the importance of this ecosystem, or if you would like more information on what you can do to help protect them, visit Wikipedia’s article on coral reefs at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral_reef
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