But what does a coral reef do?

By Carla Elliff

As the holiday season continues in full swing, anyone who will be around children opening presents may hear the familiar question: “But what does it do?” This question is usually accompanied by the exasperated expression of the adult who gave the gift. From a young age we have gotten used to expecting things to do more and more without us having to do anything ourselves. Perhaps this explains why it is not unusual to occasionally have to explain what ecosystems actually do and why do they matter. In fact, I feel my line of research strives to answer exactly this question: what does this ecosystem do, and what does it do for us?

I study the ecosystem services of coral reefs. Ecosystem services are basically the benefits we get from the environment, which allow us to live full and comfortable lives. These services can include materials we take from the ecosystem, processes within the ecosystem that keep our environment in balance, and even abstract services that lead to well-being and a sense of place – like that feeling of peace you get when you look out onto a landscape.

And let me tell you something: coral reefs are treasure troves for ecosystem services!

Picture a coral reef. What comes to mind is likely an image of a structure full of colorful organisms, painting a beautiful picture of biodiversity. While biodiversity in itself is not an ecosystem service, it is part of the natural capital that promotes services — biodiverse reefs attract tourists and contribute to local economies. Numerous species of fish and invertebrates that we consume as seafood spend some portion of their life cycle on coral reefs. Furthermore, sponges and other reef-dwellers have been shown to have great potential in the field of biotechnology. Coral reef research is constantly unveiling new information that can be used for human benefit.

After the first colorful glance, we can soon observe more aspects on a coral reef. Notice how the waves break on the reef front? This change in depth due to the presence of the carbonate reef structure promotes wave breaking and attenuates wave energy and height reaching the shore. This represents the valuable service of shoreline protection. Not only do reefs help protect our coastal communities from every day (and stormy) waves, they also protect other habitats, including seagrass, which come with their own suite of ecosystem services.

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