B on the Sea – Coral

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By Barbara Whitman “If you”ve been following the last couple of articles you may be wondering, “What’s the big deal about making sure the reefs around us are healthy?”” Most of us don’t even see the reefs.”” They are just some nebulous idea or a flash of watery color we glimpse on the Discovery Channel. Well, as unlikely as it may seem, coral is the foundation of our well-being and prosperity here on the island.” No matter what we do or who we are, how much money we make or how much power we have, and whether we like it or not, our welfare ultimately depends upon the physical condition of the coral reefs around our island.” Our economy depends upon healthy coral reefs.” These vibrant-hued, lively and lovely underwater cities attract travelers and investors.” Their secret nooks and crannies provide food and sanctuary for the fish and lobster we consume and vend.” Reefs buffer our shores from huge storm waves and without coral we wouldn’t have lovely white sand to run our toes through. If all that is true, I suppose it would be prudent to know a little something about coral reefs so that we can look after them and ultimately protect ourselves. The huge metropolises of ocean critters we call coral reefs are incredibly scarce.”” If you think of the Earth as Santa Claus (a seasonally appropriate example I believe), Santa’s black belt would represent the coral reefs.” No reefs above the belt and no reefs below.” That’s how rare coral reefs are.”” Now, the little coral animals that make up the coral reefs are the most demanding of divas and are extremely picky about their living conditions. They like their water warm, salty and clear; but not too warm, too cold, too salty, or too fresh and definitely not cloudy.” (Shades of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?)” Most of us have seen pieces of coral on the beach. We”ve probably even stubbed a toe or two on it.” It’s whitish and hard like a rock and it has little holes or designs in it.” Actually, what your throbbing toe has hit is the skeletal remains of a stony coral colony. What that means in real speak is the thing that looks like a rock is what’s left after the coral dies. A coral’s skeleton isn’t made of bones like ours but it is mostly calcium like our bones. And while our skeleton is the support structure inside our bodies, coral animals live inside their skeletons. Corals don’t get their calcium from dairy foods (although they do have cowfish on the reefs).” They absorb it directly from the sea water in a manner similar to the way our bodies absorb” calcium from pill. So if the rocklike thing we stumbled on is the skeleton, what do the living coral animals look like?” They look like flowers.” And they are called polyps ” not a particularly “romantic” name and definitely not something you would bring to your beloved in a bouquet. These tiny coral polyps live in the holes and designs of the skeleton.” Their delicate tentacles look a little like flower petals and the mouth in the middle of the tentacles is reminiscent of the center of a sunflower.”” But pretty flowers they are not.” They are instead incredibly efficient predators.” Those lovely, translucent tentacles contain thousands of microscopic and very potent stinging cells, called nematocysts.” Imagine rolling in a field of stinging nettles and that gives you an idea of what a little fish trapped in the tentacles of a coral polyp experiences.” One touch from a tentacle and the fish is injected with hundreds of “needles” filled with neurotoxin, stunned and dragged toward the gaping maw in the center.” With that vision I will leave you in suspense until next week when the saga continues. (Barb Whitman is a marine biologist, educator and proprietor of “Under the Sea,” located at Oualie Beach. For more information, call 869-662-9291.)

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