The third in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Check out Parts One and Two)
Common Name: Coral Polyps
- A.K.A.: Class Anthozoa, Subclass Hexacorallia
Common Name: Coral Algae
- A.K.A.: Genus Symbiodinium
- Polyps grow to a length of only a few centimetres, depending on species
- Coral can grow outward at a rate of up to 10cm (4”) per year
- The Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2000km (1243 mi) and can be seen from space
Found: Various coastal areas; largest reefs surrounding Australia, Oceania, and the Caribbean
It Does What?!
If you’ve ever been told that coral reefs are alive, then looked at one and felt a bit sceptical that this chuck of colourful rock could be a living thing… well, good for you, because you’re actually mostly right. The vast majority of the volume of a coral reef is, in fact, nonliving inorganic mineral (calcium carbonate, specifically). The amazing thing about coral isn’t so much what it’s made of, but what’s going on on the surface. You see, that oddly-shaped, porous rock is actually a communal exoskeleton produced and excreted over time by hundreds of thousands of polyps living in the tiny, cup-shaped depressions on the surface.
Looking like tiny jellyfish (and belonging to the same phylum), the polyps hide in the stony sanctuary they’ve made, letting only their tentacles project. These tentacles are tipped with stinging cells which can inject a powerful venom into any prey foolish enough to swim within reach. This prey can range in size from microscopic plankton to small fish. That’s right, coral eats fish. Watch where you stick your toes.
So where does the ‘duo’ part come in? Despite their ability to snatch passing sea creatures and eat them, coral polyps actually get only a small part of their caloric intake this way. Impressively, these guys managed to find a diet that requires even less effort than just reaching out and grabbing stuff. Who needs movement when you can just photosynthesize, like plants do? The polyps have developed a symbiosis with a type of single-celled alga (called zooxanthellae) that allows them to do just that.
The algae start out as free-living cells drifting through the water. They are eaten by the coral polyp, but instead of being digested, they are able to enter the cells lining its digestive tract. Since the polyps are transparent to begin with, all they have to do is expose their bodies to sunlight in order to allow the algae to produce sugars by photosynthesis (this is why reefs form in relatively shallow waters). The majority of the sugars made by the symbiont are then absorbed by the polyp.
And what do the algae get out of this arrangement? A couple of things. First, they get a safe place to live, and won’t get eaten by something that can digest them. Second, they get nutrients, in the form of carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds, both natural waste products of the polyp’s metabolism. Still, sometimes as much as 30% of the cells in a polyp are algal cells, and this puts a stain on the host’s physiology.
Maybe you’ve heard of “coral bleaching” as one of the symptoms of pollution around reefs. Bleaching happens when additional stresses (like pollution) get to be a bit too much for the polyps to handle. They can’t change the water purity, so instead, they offload the stressor they can control- the algae. Getting rid of the photosynthetic cells also gets rid of much of the characteristic colour of the reef, hence the term ‘bleaching’. In the short term, this is a smart move. It increases the polyp’s chance of survival during brief crises, and new algae can always be taken on when the host is ready. The real problems start when the environmental stress persists, and the polyp never takes on new algae. Eventually, it can’t sustain itself and dies, as those in a tenth of the world’s reefs already have. At least there’s still hope for these areas; if conditions improve, new colonies can be formed using the old reef as a foundation. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is considered to be between 6000 and 8000 years old. However, the modern structure has developed atop an older, dead reef system, thought to be over half a million years old. Time enough for us to clean up our act, maybe.
[Fun Fact: Coral polyps only reproduce sexually to start new colonies. Within a single piece of coral, all the polyps are genetically identical clones, produced by polyps dividing in half and then re-growing their lost tissues.]
- CoRIS- Coral Reef Information System
- Fransolet et al. (2012) Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 420-421:1-7
- Piper (2007) Extraordinary Animals. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut.
- Wooldridge (2010) BioEssays 32(7):615-625
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