Is coral bleaching related to changes in the environment?
Sponges, Coelenterates, and Worms
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Coral have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae are photosynthetic dinoflagellates (one-celled animals) that give coral their characteristic colors of pink, purple, and green. Coral that have expelled the zooxanthellae appear white.
Although corals can capture prey, many tropical species are dependent on photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae) for nutrition. These algae live within the cells that line the digestive cavity of the coral. The symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae is mutually beneficial. The algae provide the coral with oxygen and carbon and nitrogen compounds. The coral supplies the algae with ammonia (waste product), from which the algae make nitrogenous compounds for both partners. Coral bleaching is the stress-induced loss of zooxanthellae that live in coral cells. In coral bleaching the algae lose their pigmentation or are expelled from coral cells. Without the algae, coral become malnourished and die. The causes of coral bleaching are not completely understood, but it is believed that environmental factors are involved. Pollution, invasive bacteria such as Vibrio, salinity changes, temperature changes, and high concentrations of ultraviolet radiation (associated with the destruction of the ozone layer) all contribute to coral bleaching.