Coral reefs are complex marine ecosystems, harboring countless species of plants and animals. Contrary to most terrestrial ecosystems where plants are the ones creating the main structure, in marine environments it is animals (coral polyps) that create the backbone. The coral reef inhabitants consist of hundreds of families from the animal as well as the plant kingdom. Here are the main categories of marine life forms living in coral reefs.
Invertebrate coral reef inhabitants
The main inhabitants of coral reefs are the coral polyps themselves which are accompanied by tiny algae called zooxanthellae, the ones which live in symbiosis with the polyps and who create the limestone necessary for the coral exoskeleton.
There are plenty other species of invertebrates living in coral reefs, many of them belonging to the jellyfish category just like polyps. There are many species of sponges that live by filtering water or consuming debris on the bottom of the ocean and many mollusks such as gastropods or marine snails, bivalve or clams and scallops, cephalopods such as octopuses and squid. There are also many echinoderms such as sea stars or sea urchins living in coral reefs as well. Other invertebrates include crustaceans such as amphipods, shrimp, lobsters, crabs as well as Polychaetes or bristle worms which are some of the most colorful and bizarre worms on Earth.
Vertebrate coral reef inhabitants
There are also hundreds of species of vertebrates living within or near coral reefs. Among these fishes are probably the most numerous as well as diverse. There are hundreds of species of fishes living, feeding and reproducing within coral reefs, with many of them having adaptations to swim through the narrow spaces, camouflage or even live protected by certain species of sponges. There are also dozens of species of sea snakes living in coral reefs, snakes that have evolved from their terrestrial cousins and have become flattened so as to swim better.
Sea turtles are also common inhabitants of coral reefs and they can be seen swimming lazily looking for food. There are also a few mammal species living in these habitats, namely dugongs and manatees which are gentle giants related to elephants. There are also several vertebrate species that visit coral reefs rather than live there all the time such as dolphins, sea birds or porpoises.
Get to know coral reefs and the diverse species of plants and animals they host better, while also helping in preserving these amazing yet fragile ecosystems.