Arxiu d'etiquetes: cnidarians

Ocean alert: Coral bleaching is massively happening!

We would like that the main picture of this post had been modified using Photoshop, but unfortunately this is not the case. Thanks to the project XL Catlin Seaview Survey, we now know that coral bleaching is massively happening. What causes coral bleaching? How does coral become bleached? Which is the importance of coral in the ocean ecosystems? These questions and more are answered in this post. 


Coral bleaching is the result of the expulsion of symbiotic algae living in the coral tissues (zooxanthellae), producing them to become completely white.

Coral before and after a bleaching event (Picture: Kendall Kritzik, Creative Commons).
Coral before and after a bleaching event (Picture: Kendall Kritzik, Creative Commons).

The presence of zooxanthellae is frequent in marine cnidarians, especially in species that live in shallow waters, and they are the responsible of the greenish, bluish, yellowish or brownish colour of many coral species. In fact, each cubic millimetre of tissue of the host has 30,000 algae cells. These zooxanthellae are single-celled algae, usually dinoflagellates, that are able to live in mutualism with the coral. So, if zooxanthellae and coral live in mutualism, which are the benefits of this relationship? Coral gets the products of photosynthesis, organic carbon and nitrogen; while the algae receive nutrients, carbon dioxide, protection and a good position with access to sunshine.

Diagram of the location of zooxanthellae in a coral (Picture: Ocean Portal).
Diagram of the location of zooxanthellae in a coral (Picture: Ocean Portal).


Several causes of coral bleaching have been detected:

  1. Increased ocean temperature. Climate change is the foremost responsible of the increase in ocean temperature and this is the main stress causing coral bleaching, but it is not the only one. The rise of temperatures may be also produced by El Niño phenomenon. With just an increase of 1ºC of the water for only one month, corals begin to become bleached.
  2. Reduced ocean temperature. As warmer water ocean may produce coral bleaching, colder water may also produce these events. Some proofs support this idea: in January 2010, cold water temperature in Florida might have produced coral bleaching that resulted in coral death.
  3. Runoff and pollution. Near-shore corals can be bleached due to the pollution carried by precipitation’s runoffs.
  4. Freshwater inundation. Due to a low salinity produced by a freshwater inundation, corals may start bleaching.
  5. Overexposure to sunlight. High solar irradiation causes bleaching.
  6. Extreme low tides. Long exposures to the air can produce bleaching in shallow corals.
  7. Disease. Diseases cause coral to be more susceptible.

All these causes produce a stress to the coral and, as a result, corals expel the algae living in their tissues.


When corals are in a healthy state, they are home to algae, so that they are in a symbiotic relationship. But, when corals are stressed, the photosynthetic machinery of algae produce toxic molecules that cause the corals to expel the symbionts. If the stress is not severe, corals can recover, but they become bleached in severe and prolonged stresses. As a result, corals death because they loose their main source of food and are more susceptible to disease.

Coral bleaching process (Picture: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australian Government).
Coral bleaching process (Picture: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australian Government).


Two worldwide episodes of coral bleaching were detected in the 1998 (which killed 16% of the coral reefs around the world) and 2010, but a recent study carried out by the NOAA and the University of Queensland confirm a more severe coral bleaching episode this year (2015). This new episode, which is triggered by El Niño of this year (together with the global change), is predicted to affect the 38% of the worldwide coral reefs, killing 12,000 square kilometres of reefs. The more altered zones will be Australia and the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Bleaching in American Samoa. The first picture (before) was taken in December 2014 and the second (after) in February 2015 (Picture: XL Catlin Seaview Survey).
Bleaching in American Samoa. The first picture (before) was taken in December 2014 and the second (after) in February 2015 (Picture: XL Catlin Seaview Survey).

Nevertheless, coral bleaching doesn’t only occur in massive episodes. Each year, during summer months, some limited coral bleaching is reported all over the globe.


Despite the fact that coral reefs comprise less than 1% of the underwater ecosystems, they play a major role in the ocean. One quarter of marine life depends on coral because they are the nursery of the sea, so they are an important protein source for animals and humans. Moreover, they protect shorelines from waves and tsunamis. In addition, from an economical point of view, they are one of the most important places of tourist interest and support fishing industries. In fact, they provide food and livelihoods for more than 500 million people around the world.


All the activities you do to lessen your carbon dioxide production are good to prevent the Earth from global change and, therefore, are good to avoid coral bleaching. Keep doing like that! Share with us: which are the actions that you take to prevent global change? 



Voyage to the bottom of the deep sea (II): Biodiversity in the deep sea

This week we are continuing our voyage to the bottom of the deep sea. While last week we focused on the adaptations that fishes have suffered, this week we are focussing on the biodiversity. In concrete, we are explaining crustaceans, squids, cnidarians (corals, jellyfishes and anemones), fishes and worms. 


In 1840, the scientist Edward Forbes concluded that there wasn’t life under 550 meters depth. Nowadays, it is known that this is not true because recently it has been found a fish at 8,100 meters. It has been determined that the relative abundance of animals depends on depth. In fact, in general terms, the abundance decreases with depth, but this don’t exclude that there are a lot of species.




Amphipods are by far the most abundant crustaceans in the deep sea. They are small animals with the body compressed laterally and without a carapace, which feeds on carrion and live inside cavities made by themselves in the sea floor. These small animals are transparent, except for them eyes, which are red due to a pigment in the retina.

amphipode-abysseDeep sea amphipod. They are characterized by the presence of a transparent body with red eyes. (Picture from

Other deep sea crustaceans are stone crabs, with a carapace of 7.5 cm length and legs of about 15 cm; the armoured shrimp, one of the species that lives at 6,000 meters and has a length of 7 to 10 cm; and more.


In spite of the general thinking that deep sea squids are all large, like the giant squid, which can achieve a length of 18 meters; the truth is that this is an exemption because there are some spices of just 4 cm. They hunt with the suckers in the tentacles and driving the prey to the mouth. Most of these squids are bioluminescent and can regulate the colour, the intensity and the angular distribution of the light.

The Humboldt or jumbo squid (Dosidicus gigas) lives in the western coasts of Central and South Amercia and can achieve a length of 4 meters, which feeds on fishes and practise cannibalism.

Dosidicus_gigasHumboldt or jumbo squid (Dosidicus gigas). They have bad reputation because they attack divers.


Differences between shallower cnidarians and deep ones are due to differences in the food distribution. In the deep sea, anemones and corals don’t have directly phytoplankton and zooplankton, and they depend on the nutrient rain from the shallower waters of the ocean. On the other hand, jellyfishes have a slow metabolism to survive in hard conditions. It supposes slower growth, but a longer life.

To give an example, this crown jellyfish inhabits between 200 and 2000 meters depth and can measure until 15 cm. It feeds on small crustaceans and organic matter. Its red colour let them be camouflaged in the environment. In addition, they are bioluminescent animals.

Atolla wyvillei[3]Crown jellyfish. Its red colour let them be camouflaged in the environment.

Deep-sea jellyfishes are voracious predators, but also can be a prey for some fishes. They produce light discharges to attract small animals. To dissuade predators, they expel a brilliant particles stream.

An habitual feature of deep-sea jellyfishes, but also present in other groups, is gigantism. It means they are bigger than their equivalents in the shallow ocean. The possible explanation to this could be that bigger animals are more efficient than smaller to get food when the environmental conditions are almost constant during long periods of time.


Gonostomatidae fishes are the most abundant vertebrates in the Earth and live in the mesopelagic zone. Together with the lantern fishes, they represent a 90% of the captures in the pelagic trawling fishery. Deep-sea fishes usually have a length between 2,5 – 10 cm and a thin and soft body, but there are exceptions.

There are some examples here:

  • Anglerfish: These fishes inhabit in the deepest parts of the oceans and present the optimal colouration to absorb the few light that arrive and, in this way, to be camouflaged. They present a light in the end of the antenna, which let them to capture preys.
  • Spiny lantern fish: Because of its silvery body, this fish is not much vulnerable since its contour can’t be seen clearly. In addition, spiny lantern fish presents a bag in the eye with bioluminescent bacteria.
Pez linterna espinoso
Spiny lantern fish
  • Pelican eel: This animal can measure 2 meters long. Its enormous mouth are connected directly to the stomach.
Pelican eel
Pelican eel
  • Tripodfish: Tripodfish has long prolongations in its pelvic and caudal fins, which let them put on the sea floor, while it is waiting for its prey.
  • Black swallower: This small fish has the ability to dilate a lot its stomach and, in this way, it can swallow preys bigger than itself.
Black swallower
Black swallower



Deep-sea worms can be from microscopic to measure 2 meters long and are one of the most abundant and different invertebrates. They can be of different groups: polychaetes, tubular worms, sipunculids and equiurids. They live partly or totally buried in the sediments.

Tubular worms usually live in big groups near to thermal springs and present red bright gills as a consequence of a high level in hemoglobin to absorb oxygen. In addition, they can retain sulfurs, which will be used for symbiotic bacteria.

Riftia_fish_EPR_Kristof_Lutz-pTubular worms. They use the sulphur produce in the thermal springs thanks to symbiotic bacteria.

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