Coral reefs are among the most amazing of ecosystems on our planet. Although found as solitary forms through 400 million years of geological history, the fossil record shows that corals evolved into modern reef-building organisms within the past 25 million years. Over those millions of years, coral reefs have evolved into the rainforests of the sea –a place of great biological diversity that is home to thousands of species that are found no where else. In fact, coral reefs are the most complex, species-rich, and productive of marine ecosystems.
The scientific study of coral reefs has only begun within the past 200 years. Charles Darwin, James Dwight Dana, and Louis Agassiz were all pioneers in the study of coral reefs. Initial studies were concerned with the mode of formation of coral reefs. Darwin, who sailed with HMS BEAGLE and Dana who accompanied the United States exploring expedition each made notable contributions in this arena. Darwin’s model of fringing reef on young high islands progressing to older atolls fringing coral lagoons and Dana’s independently arrived at concept of similar age progression from young to old followed by the probability of sunken flat-topped seamounts are as valid today as they were over 150 years ago. Louis Agassiz conducted his first studies of coral reefs in 1851 when he was commissioned by the Coast Survey to study the Florida Reefs as related to navigation of the Florida Straits.
Today, coral reefs, both modern and fossil, are studied as indicators of global change; as multi-faceted ecosytems with a plethora of species that could provide cures for forms of cancer and other ills afflicting mankind; and as highly endangered ecosystems that suffer from bleaching episodes related to warming of the global ocean, massive invasions of predatory species such as crown of thorns starfish, pollution from chemicals and sediment laden waters, and destructive fishing practices. Because of their fragility, coral reefs have been compared to the proverbial “canary in the mine shaft” for the world ocean. Let us hope that we are able to preserve the beautiful creatures of the coral reefs and their wonderful ecosystems for future generations.