Important ocean habitats that offer us compelling evidence about the risks posed by climate change, coral reefs are large underwater structures made up of the skeletons of colonial marine invertebrates called coral. Also referred to as "the rain forests of the seas", scientists believe that one out of every four marine species live in and around coral reefs. This makes them one of the most diverse habitats of the planet, providing for a huge portion of Earth's biodiversity.
Each individual coral is referred to as a polyp. Coral polyps live on the calcium carbonate exoskeletons of their ancestors, adding their own exoskeleton to the existing coral structure. As the centuries pass, the coral reef gradually grows, one tiny exoskeleton at a time, until they become massive features of the marine environment.
Corals are found all over the world's oceans, from the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska to the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea. The biggest coral reefs are found in the clear, shallow waters of the tropics and subtropics. The largest of these coral reef systems, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, is more than 1,500 miles long (2,400 kilometers).
Scientists have explored only about 20 percent of the ocean's floor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As such, ocean explorers continue to discover previously unknown coral reefs that have likely existed for hundreds of years.
Most of the substantial coral reefs found today are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old, according to CORAL. They are most often found in warm, clear, shallow water where there's plenty of sunlight to nurture the algae that the coral rely on for food.
Coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the ocean floor — all the reefs combined would equal an area of about 110,000 square miles (285,000 square km), only about the size of the state of Nevada. Nonetheless, they are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems on Earth.
About 25 percent of all known marine species rely on coral reefs for food, shelter and breeding. Sometimes referred to as "the rainforests of the sea" for their biodiversity, coral reefs are the primary habitat for more than 4,000 species of fish, 700 species of coral and thousands of other plants and animals, according to CORAL.
Coral reefs are typically divided into four categories, according to CORAL: fringing reefs, barrier reefs, patch reefs and atolls. Fringing reefs are the most commonly seen reef and grow near coastlines. Barrier reefs differ from fringing reefs in that they are separated from the coastlines by deeper, wider lagoons. Patch reefs typically grow between fringing and barrier reefs on the island platform or continental shelf. The rings of coral that make up atolls create protected lagoons in the middle of the oceans, typically around islands that have sunk back down into the ocean.
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