Coral reefs are commonly described as ‘rainforests of the sea’ because of similarities between the two ecosystems: both are complex ecosystems, highly diverse, and are heavily impacted by human activities. However, some experts in the field have debated the accuracy of this comparison. NOAA’s CoRIS (Coral Reef Information System) summarizes a debate regarding this topic here with more details of the discussion found on this forum.
Scientific experts agree that this analogy has some merits, mainly to bring awareness of coral reefs to the general public, but glosses over many of the differences between these two complex ecosystems. However, Dr. Alex Brylske, a marine educator at Florida Keys Community College, comments on the importance of analogies in scientific learning saying they can be “powerful instructional tools” (page 8 of the forum discussion). While Dr. Brylske focused on coral reefs as ‘cities of the sea’ instead of rainforests, I agree that analogies are important tools to raise awareness and provide a big picture that is easily understood.
So, Rainforests of the sea: It may seem a bit strange to compare hard, almost rocky, structures on the ocean floor to the enormous, soaring branches and abundant greenery of the world’s rainforests; but this comparison makes it easy to grasp the major characteristics of these important ecosystems.
When people think of rainforests they think of lush plants, towering trees, and exotic animals! There is an excitement and sense of adventure and wilderness that rainforests evoke. Thanks to “Save the Rainforest” campaigns, people know that rainforests have a wide variety of plant and animal life; they are the most diverse ecosystems on land! People are also aware that rainforests around the world are threatened by human activities like logging and farming. So how does this relate to coral reefs?
Like rainforests, coral reefs are extremely diverse ecosystems. Reefs shelter and contain 25% of ocean species and cover only 1% of the Earth’s surface. That’s like ¼ of the US population (78 million people) all squished together living in Delaware!These species include a plethora of fish (parrotfish, angel fish, Nemo and friends), crustaceans (crabs, lobsters), squid, octopi, one of my favorites… turtles, and of course, corals (branching, brain, and boulder)!
Also, like rainforests, coral reefs are threatened by humans. Activities as simple as snorkeling and wearing sunscreen can hurt corals. Unfortunately, people are not as aware of their impacts on coral reefs as they are about human impacts on rainforests. Some people are not even aware that corals are actually living animals. I believe that the analogy that corals are the ‘rainforests of the sea’ is key to bringing attention to the importance of coral reefs. It is catchy and easily paints a picture of reefs as teeming with exotic life and makes people want to experience this underwater excitement for themselves.
Other analogies: How do you think coral reefs could be thought of as ‘cities of the sea’?