Did you know that coral is technically an animal—a super vital one in terms of ecosystem balance? Unfortunately, 10-20 percent of coral reefs worldwide could die this year.

That’s the bad news. But there is hope, thanks to some determined scientists on Gilligan’s Island (I kid you not).

But first—what exactly is coral? Coral is a sessile animal that relies on its relationship with plant-like algae to build the largest structures of biological origin on earth. “Sessile” refers to the fact that coral permanently attached or “root” themselves to the ocean floor, leading many to incorrectly classify the animals as plants.

But corals are most definitely animals, because, as the National Ocean Service (NOS) explains, “they do not make their own food, as plants do.” Instead, “corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep into their inscrutable mouths.”

If you’ve ever explored a coral reef, you’re familiar with its beauty, but are they a necessary part of our underwater world? Abso-freakin-lutely!

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth, and serve so many purposes in the balancing act of nature, where does one begin? NOAA gives some examples:

“Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Scientists estimate that there may be another 1 to 8 million undiscovered species of organisms living in and around reefs. This biodiversity is considered key to finding new medicines for the 21st century. Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses, and other diseases.”

Possibly curing cancer?! Yes, but that’s not all. Of course coral reefs also contribute to local economies through tourism and provide critical food resources to millions of people worldwide. The commercial value of U.S. fisheries alone from coral reefs is over $100 million, and in developing countries, coral reefs contribute about one-quarter of the total fish catch. But there’s more. Again, NOAA:

“Coral reefs buffer adjacent shorelines from wave action and prevent erosion, property damage and loss of life. Reefs also protect the highly productive wetlands along the coast, as well as ports and harbors and the economies they support. Globally, half a billion people are estimated to live within 100 kilometers of a coral reef and benefit from its production and protection.”

So to say that coral reefs are important to our planet is a vast understatement. Our planet needs them, and yet human-caused global warming is one of the factors that is literally killing them. Ruth Gates, director of the Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, explains what’s been happening to Hawaii’s coral:

“When coral is stressed by changing environmental conditions, it expels the symbiotic algae that live within it and the animal turns white or bright yellow, a process called bleaching. If the organisms are unable to recover from these bleaching events, especially when they recur over several consecutive years, the coral will die.”

Gates estimates that around 60 to 80 percent of the coral in Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay has bleached this year, and says that “the bleaching has intensified and got much more serious.”

Yikes, that’s not good. So what can be done about that?

There may be hope, if scientists are able to speed up evolution. Scientists at a research center on Hawaii’s Coconut Island, the very island where Gilligan’s Island was filmed way back when, are experimenting with a seemingly unusual approach to save coral: They’re essentially attempting to speed up evolution in order to grow “super coral” which they hope will be able to withstand more acidic and hotter oceans (one of the unfortunate side effects of global warming).

Speeding up evolution may sound like science fiction, but in reality, the technique is not that unusual, except when it comes to coral. As the AP explains, “The theory they are testing is called assisted evolution, and while it has been used for thousands of years on other plants and animals, the concept has not been applied to coral living in the wild.”

Here’s how the experimenting actually works, from the AP:

“Gates and her team are taking the coral to their center on the 29-acre isle, and slowly exposing them to slightly more stressful water. They bathe chunks of coral that they’ve already identified as having strong genes in water that mimics the warmer and more acidic oceans. They are also taking resilient strains and breeding them with one another, helping perpetuate those stronger traits.”

They’re basically attempting to create stronger coral that is better equipped to withstand the extreme environmental changes.

Gates says, “We’ve given them experiences that we think are going to raise their ability to survive stress.” The plan is to transplant the “super-corals” back into the bay. The hope is that they maintain their color, grow normally and then reproduce on their own next summer.

Let’s hope it works, because the stakes are huge and this coral problem is not exclusive to Hawaii. Earlier this month, NOAA said that coral reefs around the world are experiencing bleaching, calling the event extensive and severe. When the report came out, NOAA coral reef watch coordinator Mark Eakin said, “We may be looking at losing somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 percent of the coral reefs this year,” and that “Hawaii is getting hit with the worst coral bleaching they have ever seen.”

Ok, so to sum up; the world’s reefs create habitats for marine life, provide food to millions of people, protect shorelines and drive tourist economies. And let’s not forget—they may someday help cure cancer. So they are a vital part of our ecosystem, no question.

By doing what you can to stop global warming, you’ll be helping to save coral reefs. It goes without saying that human’s need to stop relying on fossil fuels and to “mitigate the emission of greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.” Unfortunately, Gates’ Australian counterpart Dr. Madeleine van Oppen points out a disturbing truth: “Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, there is still this lag in the atmosphere where climate change will continue for probably hundreds of years.”

So we need to stop greenhouse gas emissions, like, yesterday.

TAKE ACTION!

  • Read the Nature Conservancy’s 10 Easy Steps to Help Protect Coral Reefs
  • Follow these recommendations from the National Wildlife Federation:
    • Never anchor on a reef.
    • Volunteer with organizations working to clean up local waterways.
    • Slow global warming by conserving energy, which includes using energy-efficient lighting and appliances and using mass transportation whenever possible.
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