Corals: A Polyp’s Journey

Once upon a time, in a strange and wonderful land beneath the sea, there lived a colony of tiny builders. These builders were small and quiet, hidden from the teeming metropolis and flashing colors of the world above, yet an essential part of the city beneath the sea. coralmetropolis There came a time, on a bright, moonlit night, when the builders decided to create a new colony. Their children ventured out into the sea, searching for a place where they could build their own homes. And so, the polyps settled to the sea floor and a new colony was born. coralpolypsexyshrimpEach polyp worked to build its own home out of calcium carbonate, and together the homes multiplied to form another addition to the coral reef. The colony, a new coral, provided much needed space for many other members of the reef community. Shrimp and crabs moved into the nooks and crannies between each polyp’s home and helped to fend off many fish and sea stars that find coral polyps tasty treats. Zooxanthellae, a type of algae, were sheltered and protected in the polyp’s homes and, in return, helped to feed the immobile polyps and provide them with essential nutrients to build and repair their homes. As the colony grew older, other, larger, algae began to grow on the calcium carbonate skeleton and started to damage the colony. Luckily, many types of fish feed on this algae and they, especially parrotfish, began the ongoing process of removing the algae from the colony. Unfortunately, some of the fish can get a little too excited at the prospect of food and they can break off bits of the coral skeleton as they feed. Each builder works hard to repair this damage and keep the colony growing. By working together, the polyps can build a colony that will last hundreds, even thousands, of years. The time will come for this colony to send its little polyps to build a new home; and so the reef keeps growing. The city of the sea thrives thanks to these tiny builders who create, not only their own homes, but shelter for the thousands of other fish, crabs, shrimp, eels, turtles, and more that rely on coral reefs for survival. coralhead   For more information on corals and coral reefs check out the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal

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