Aquatic and Land Animal Diversity

Aquatic Animals

How are coral reefs formed, and how fast are they built?

Coral reefs grow only in warm, shallow water. The calcium carbonate skeletons of dead corals serve as a framework upon which layers of successively younger animals attach themselves. Such accumulations, combined with rising water levels, slowly lead to the formation of reefs that can be hundreds of meters deep and long. For example, the major reef builder in Florida and Caribbean waters, Montastrea annularis (star coral), requires about one hundred years to form a reef just 3 feet (1 meter) high.

The coral animal, or polyp, has a columnar form; its lower end is attached to the hard floor of the reef, while the upper end is free to extend into the water, with the whole colony consisting of thousands of such individual polyps. Two kinds of corals exist, hard and soft, depending on the type of skeleton secreted. The polyps of hard corals deposit around themselves a solid skeleton of calcium carbonate (chalk), so most swimmers see only the skeleton of the coral; the animal is in a cuplike formation into which it withdraws during the daytime. (For more about coral reefs, see the chapter “Environment and Ecology.”)


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