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At Risk

A Coral Conundrum

You think you're doing the right thing, but baby coral disagrees.

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Fact-Checking Finding Nemo

The 2003 Disney movie features a few fishy facts.

  1. Predator Problems

    Fancy a snack?

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  2. Flushed Out

    Don't try this at home

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  3. Sex Changes

    All in the family

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  4. Water Woes

    Anyone got a blanket?

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  1. Predator Problems
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    Bye-Bye Jacques

    In real life, Nemo’s stay in the dentist’s fish tank would be rather harrowing. Nemo’s tank-mates Bloat, the porcupine fish, and Jacques, the cleaner shrimp, are predator and prey, respectively. Bang that gong — it’s dinner time!
  2. Flushed Out
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    A Crappy End

    Nemo’s daring escape via the dentist’s toilet would have dumped him in a chemical-ridden water treatment plant, not the ocean. These facilities have an extensive “grinder” system to break down solids… including fish. Gulp. 
  3. Sex Changes
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    Sex and the Sea-ty

    Without a viable mate around, Marlin, Nemo’s dad, would have turned into a female so that Nemo could mature and fertilize her eggs. Clownfish are protandrous hermaphrodites: they change sex according to the needs of their local population. How handy!
  4. Water Woes
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    All Water is not Equal

    In the 2016 sequel to Finding Nemo, Finding Dory sees Nemo, Marlin and Dory travel from the Australian to the Californian coast. Aside from the infeasible 11,000-kilometre swim, there’s another issue: these tropical fish would never survive the much colder waters of Morro Bay.
Photo: q phia / flickr

What’s Killing Our Coral?

Sunscreen has a lot to answer for.

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Just Do One Thing

Switch to mineral sunscreens now.

Why Coral Is Out-Of-This-World Cool

Thought it was just pretty? Think again.

  1. Jellyfish In-Laws

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  2. Stinging Sensation

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  3. Algae Tenants

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  4. Built-In UV Protection

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  1. Jellyfish In-Laws
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    Whadda Family Tree

    Corals aren’t plants; they’re colonial organisms, meaning they’re thousands of individual animals, called polyps, connected by living tissue. Coral polyps are tiny organisms, related to jellyfish and anemones, that form a reef by leaving behind their limestone skeletons.
  2. Stinging Sensation
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    Let Us Prey

    Corals are badass. Each polyp has a stomach with a mouth surrounded by tentacles. Their tentacles have stinging nematocyst cells that inject a liquid venom into their prey, which might be a microscopic zooplankton or a small fish, depending on the polyp size.
  3. Algae Tenants
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    Symbiosis FTW

    Microscopic algae, called zooxanthellae, live within the cells lining the polyp’s stomach. The algae uses the coral’s nutrients for photosynthesis, while the coral provides protection (like ecological mafia!) and draws 90% of its energy from the algae’s photosynthesized food.
  4. Built-In UV Protection
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    Colour Us Impressed

    When exposed to intense sunlight some polyps increase their production of pink, purple and blue protein pigments, becoming even more vibrant. Changing colour is essentially a form of sunscreen, protecting the coral — and the algae living inside it — from UV rays. Nice.
Photo: Vadim Kurland / flickr

Spotlight: Jenna Davis

Devastated by the coral bleaching in her home of Hawaii, this SNUBA instructor decided to take action, creating reef-friendly Raw Love Sunscreen.

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How To Be Reef Responsible

Want to go reef diving or snorkelling on holiday? Sounds amazing — just follow these top tips.

  1. Do Your Research

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  2. Don't Feed the Fish

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  3. Size Really Does Matter

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  4. Look Don't Touch

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  1. Do Your Research
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    Tour in Peace

    As long as it’s done responsibly and sustainably, reef tourism is a good thing. It provides a powerful incentive for communities to protect their reefs. Choose tour operators that use mooring buoys or drift diving rather than anchors, which cause devastating damage.
  2. Don't Feed the Fish
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    More Chips for you

    Some divers and snorkelers are tempted to scatter food to draw fish out. Not only does this harm — or even kill — the fish, but adding food to the coral reef increases nutrient levels, which in turn increases the growth of harmful algae that damage corals.
  3. Size Really Does Matter
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    Go Small

    It’s best to opt for a small-group tour operator. Overcrowding at dive sites leads to jostling and too much activity around the reef, causing damage and stirring up coral-suffocating sediment.
  4. Look Don't Touch
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    Hands Off

    Take only pictures and leave only bubbles! Keep those fins and hands off the coral. They’re delicate and the tiniest touch can leave an impact. Wear a wetsuit rather than sunscreen to avoid leaving behind chemical traces that lead to bleaching (AKA death).
Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service

Drugs from the Deep 

Coral-reef creatures engage in serious chemical warfare to protect their turf, so it's an ideal ecosystem to discover the next wonder drug.

  1. Mighty Sponges

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  2. Life-Saving Squirts

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  3. Clinical Cone Snails

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  4. Jawsome Pain Relief

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  1. Mighty Sponges
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    Hope Floats

    Many approved reef drugs use the antiviral or anticancer abilities of sea sponges. Halaven is one such drug: on the market since 2010 and saving the lives of breast-cancer sufferers ever since.
  2. Life-Saving Squirts
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    Deep Discoveries

    Developed from siphon-like creatures called sea squirts, the trabectedin drug is a formidable weapon against the deadly soft-tissue cancer myxoid liposarcoma.
  3. Clinical Cone Snails
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    Sea Saviours

    The peptides in the cone snail’s paralyzing venom are already an approved painkiller called prialt, injected through the spinal cord. Researchers are at work on the next generation of venom-derived pain relief that will come in easy-to-swallow pills.
  4. Jawsome Pain Relief
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    Formidable Fangs

    The cute, but toothy fang blenny fish from the tropical reef has an opioid peptide in its fangs, helpful for stunning predators and —researchers hope — relieving pain.

Feel it in your Bones

Scientists are using coral reefs to rebuild bones. In real life.

Photo: arthurmlee1 / flickr
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Commit To Coral

These three simple things can make a big difference to life in the reef.

  1. Check For Oxybenzone

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  2. Leave Nemo Alone

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  3. Look, Don't Touch

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  1. Check For Oxybenzone
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    Yep, Label Reading Again

    OK, so this involves reading really tiny type (yeesh, get the reading glasses out), but isn't that a small price to pay when the result is saving our reefs? Oxybenzone is an Oxy-no-no.
  2. Leave Nemo Alone
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    His Home, Not Yours

    If you're absolutely desperate for your very own Nemo, you have two options. One: buy a soft toy version because, let's be honest, it requires much less care. Or two: double- and triple-check that you're buying only captive-bred clownfish.
  3. Look, Don't Touch
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    Leave Only Bubbles

    You know when someone says “don't touch that plate, it's really hot” and you immediately want to touch it? Well, ignoring this tip won't give you second-degree burns, but it will damage and destroy innocent coral. Keep those hands to yourself!

Don't stop now, you're on a roll — read these next

What is Coral?

Chances are you've been underappreciating the construction workers of the sea for far too long.

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I have dedicated my life to help make the ocean thrive and feel I now have found my voice by creating a product that helps address a real problem.

Jenna Davis

Photo: Joseph Sherrock

As a community we need to come together and make a difference simply by being conscious of the products that we choose to use.

Jenna Davis

The ocean is our lifeline here on Earth. It is the air we breathe and the food we eat. We must protect it.

Jenna Davis

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Photo: Phalinn Ooi

In the 1960s, Dr. Eugene White was diving amongst the corals of the South Pacific when he noticed something curious. As a professor of material sciences at Pennsylvania State University, his eye was trained to look at the structure of things and the porous reef looked an awful lot like the spongy marrow of bone.

Intrigued, Dr. White and his nephew, Rodney White, a medical student, began to explore whether coral could actually replace human bone. At the time, the medical community was eager to improve invasive bone-grafting surgeries. 

Hips, ribs and skulls were often harvested from the patient, or from cadavers, to plug a hole elsewhere in the skeleton. This two-step surgery boosted the chance of scarring and infection. The Whites, along with a team of researchers, soon discovered that human bone would indeed fuse with coral’s porous structure. 

“From coral jaw bones to sea-sponge cancer drugs, the reef ecosystem is becoming a force in the medical field”

One reason that coral can replace bone is that coral is a kind of bone. The electric-coloured stony reefs are actually hundreds upon thousands of exoskeletons stuck together

Built by tiny stationary animals called polyps that live together in massive colonies, these creatures have developed top-notch defence skills against predators. They can retract into their exoskeleton for safety, but mostly they spend their time waving their miniature harpoon-tipped tentacles around trying to skewer food. 

When a polyp gets too big for its britches, it lifts itself up and out of the exoskeleton and starts building a new one. When they move up, they leave a little gap underneath their new home. This happens again and again, creating perfectly interconnected tunnels that make coral an ideal bone replacement.  

Photo: jayhem

After a coral-bone graft, human cells move into the former homes of polyps and make them their own. Eventually, the tissue fully replaces the coral, leaving healed bone in its place.  

In 2012, the Whites’ discovery won a Golden Goose Award for obscure research leading to a scientific breakthrough. Coralline-ceramic surgery is now mainstream, with hundreds of thousands of patients walking around with coral-based bone grafts.  

But researchers are still perfecting the procedure. By seeding lab-grown coral with stem cells and enriching it with minerals that spur bone growth, scientists observed that coralline grafts are healing faster than those that use the patient’s own bone.  

From coral jaw bones to sea-sponge cancer drugs, the reef ecosystem is becoming a force in the medical field. So many reef-derived drugs are under review that the ecosystem has rightfully earned the moniker “the medicine cabinet for the 21st century.”  What other miracle potions are waiting in the coral reef for someone like Dr. White to swim along and spot the potential?  

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